The FIVE crucial Sunderland calls Tony Mowbray needs to make ahead of Championship return - and what to expect

Sunderland return to Championship action on Saturday looking to build on their positive start to the season.

Tony Mowbray has a number of key calls to make ahead of Preston North End's visit, and here we run you through exactly what he'll be weighing up, and what to expect ahead of a welcome return to the Stadium of Light.

IS ELLIS SIMMS FIT TO BE INVOLVED?

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Tony Mowbray had been hopeful in the aftermath of the Watford draw that Simms would be fit for the visit of Preston North End but a few days out from the game, the picture is not fully clear.

Edouard Michut is expected to be soon in contention for senior minutes

“Ellis [Simms] is progressing and will hopefully be a bit closer - we’ll have to wait and see,” he said on Mowbray.

The head coach is understandably keen to get a centre-forward back into his starting XI but with the schedule through October punishing and Ross Stewart unavailable, he knows the risk of a setback has to be considered carefully.

Sunderland need Simms to be firing right up until the World Cup break in November, so that perhaps means Mowbray has to err on the side of caution up to a point. Time will tell.

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IF NOT - WHO LEADS THE LINE?

If Simms isn’t ready to start, Mowbray has a difficult decision as to how to set up his side.

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At Reading, Alex Pritchard excelled in the false nine role after the Everton loanee was forced off the pitch with his foot injury. Reading’s previously settled defence weren’t sure who should be picking up Pritchard as he dropped deep and drifted into space, bringing other players into the game as the Black Cats produced a brilliant counter-attacking performance.

At Watford a few days later, we saw the other side of playing without a striker and particularly in a difficult spell at the start of the second half. With the hosts dominating possession, Pritchard’s instinct understandably was to drop deep to help his time. It left Sunderland without an outlet, whether in stretching the game by running into the channels or by holding the ball up with back to goal.

On home turf Mowbray might feel that with a bit more of the ball likely, it’s a better game for Pritchard in that role.

The other alternative is to bring in Amad Diallo, who excelled against Watford in those closing stages. What he undoubtedly benefited from, though, was playing alongside Leon Dajaku in a 4-4-2. With Dajaku occupying centre-halves, he was able to drift into space and link up with Patrick Roberts in particular. Leading the line on his own will be an altogether different challenge, which will be a key factor for Mowbray to consider.

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Which brings us to the next key call…

STICK WITH FOUR AT THE BACK?

Kristjaan Speakman spoke during the international break of how the squad had primarily been built to play a 4-3-3. That Sunderland played 3-5-2 through the opening weeks of the season was mainly because Alex Neil felt their best chance of winning points was to get both Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms on the pitch together - and that proved to be a sound call.

Injuries, though, have seen Mowbray move to a back four, something that he had previously said was inevitable at some stage.

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It allows him to get Patrick Roberts in his strongest positions, which has already had a dramatic impact on the side’s attacking threat. The biggest issue is whether he has the defenders to play in a back four with Daniel Ballard injured. Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch have done an excellent job over the last couple of weeks generally but are both definitely more comfortable in a back three/five.

CAN DENNIS CIRKIN AND AJI ALESE GET IN THE SAME TEAM - OR IS TOO SOON?

Mowbray now has a very welcome selection dilemma with Dennis Cirkin back in training.

Alese has surely done enough to keep his place in the side, excellent both defensively and breaking forward, and that allows Mowbray to ease Cirkin back in and avoid the risk of a recurrence.

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In a 4-3-3 system there’s no reason why the two couldn’t combine on the left side of defence, which is an exciting prospect given their athleticism and talent.

The challenge for Alese in particular is to show consistency over a long period of time to make his case even stronger - Cirkin’s experience last season showed that there will inevitably be ups and downs for a youngster in his first full season of senior professional football.

IS EDOUARD MICHUT READY - AND WHO DROPS OFF THE BENCH IF HE IS?

Michut had a difficult first competitive outing in a Sunderland shirt, sent off after 70 minutes in a 2-0 U21 defeat to Middlesbrough.

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As many pointed out Yann M’Vila suffered a similar fate early in his career on Wearside, so there’s no reason to get carried away. Ultimately improving his match fitness was the main focus, with Mowbray hopeful that he’d be ready to compete for senior football after this international break.

With another two weeks of training under his belt, too, he must be approaching the matchday squad. The interesting question for Mowbray is how he would fit him in, particularly given that with Bailey Wright also available again following a short absence due to personal reasons,

He made five substitutions to turn the game against Watford, and every player could make the case that they made the mark.

Jay Matete, for example, drew a special mention from Mowbray in his post-match press conference for his impact. Trai Hume was the only outfield player not to be introduced at Vicarage Road but he brings balance to the defence as a naturally right-sided defender.

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So to introduce Michut would mean someone dropping out harshly - and after the lack of depth in early weeks of the season this is perhaps the most welcome dilemma of all.