The state of play with Simon Grayson's Sunderland squad ahead of crucial month

Grabban is one of many talented players returning to the first team fold
Grabban is one of many talented players returning to the first team fold
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An improved display at Deepdale, and the successful return of the popular Duncan Watmore, meant that Sunderland entered the international break with more breathing space than expected after their abject display at Portman Road.

Manager Simon Grayson has spoken regularly of his desire to get a two week break to work on fitness and team shape, and so this is a crucial month for him and his team to show tangible signs of progress.

Above all else, they will have to conquer the Stadium of Light demons that have held them back for most of 2017. Home games this month against QPR, Bristol City and Bolton Wanderers must surely yield a minimum of six points.

For the Black Cats boss, it will be the first time he has been able to call upon the vast majority of his first team squad at the same time. Here, we round up the state of play as a busy international schedule and a lengthy injury list begins to clear...

GOALKEEPERS

Jason Steele will likely start the month as number one, after surprisingly replacing Robbin Ruiter in the build-up to the defeat at Ipswich.

It is a position that Grayson will want settled. Last season at Preston he regularly rotated Anders Lindegaard and Chris Maxwell before the latter took possession of the shirt and kept it for the remainder of the campaign.

So far Ruiter has shown a better command of his penalty area, crucial in this league, but Grayson and his staff clearly have faith in Steele to come good. Ruiter's presence on the bench will loom large if there are errors, however.

DEFENDERS

Grayson looks set to have a full battery of defenders to call upon for the QPR game and beyond.

Bryan Oviedo came through Costa Rica's draw with Honduras unscathed, with a game against Panama to follow on Tuesday. After the last international break his late arrival meant that Brendan Galloway deputised against Sheffield United. Should Grayson go down that route again it will more than likely be Adam Matthews, not in the Wales squad this time around, who features.

Lamine Kone played no part in his Ivory Coast side's 0-0 draw with Mali and will be due back on Wearside shortly. With Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy firmly established as Martin O'Neill's first choice centre-back pairing, John O'Shea is likely to be a substitute for the crunch qualifier with Wales on Monday night and so should return for club duty fit and fresh.

Marc Wilson should recover from a groin injury in time, leaving Grayson with a number of decisions to make. Wilson and Kone are arguably his best defenders but were woeful against Ipswich. O'Shea and Browning formed a resolute partnership against Preston and both could consider themselves deeply unfortunate were they to be dropped.

MIDFIELDERS

Didier Ndong played 90 minutes as his Gabon side were heavily beaten by Morocco on Saturday, and though he is in action again on Tuesday, that is against France in Paris and so he will return in plenty of time to be fit and fresh for the weekend.

After a run of poor form, his energy and interceptions were back to their best level against Preston as he and Lee Cattermole put in their most impressive displays since the opening night draw with Derby County.

Jonny Williams will also be in contention to start after recovering from illness. The meteoric rise of Ben Woodburn and the good form of Tom Lawrence has pushed him down the Wales pecking order, but he could feature off the bench against Ireland on Monday. His return to contention gives Simon Grayson the option of playing with a genuine playmaker behind the main striker. As too, does Paddy McNair, who has spoken regularly of his desire to thrive in an advanced role.

McNair will return to action in the U23 side against Hertha Berlin on Tuesday night, and so a first team return may be a few weeks away yet. If McNair follows Watmore's path to a first team return, which seems likely given the similarity of their injuries, then he may well play in U23 games against Arsenal and Everton on the 16th and 20th before coming into contention for a matchday squad towards the end of the month.

Out wide, Grayson will have relished the chance to work on fitness and tactics with Callum McManaman for a full fortnight, and he will be a strong contender to start against QPR.

Aiden McGeady was a late substitute in Ireland's win on Moldova and is unlikely to start against Wales, so should be ready to play what is likely to be a central role in Sunderland's attempts to end their home woes.

STRIKERS

Lewis Grabban will return to action this month in a significant boost to Simon Grayson's options. The 29-year-old showed glimpses of his quality in the early stages of the season and his presence seems to help the Black Cats play through the lines more often, rather than going aimlessly long.

Both he and Duncan Watmore will help to better utilise James Vaughan's strength and work-rate, and it will be fascinating to see whether Grayson continues to use Watmore in a central role. The 23-year-old caused Preston's defence all manner of problems with his willingness to run into the channels and off the shoulders of the centre-backs, and it could add another dimension to his side's attacking play.

This month could also see the first senior appearance for Josh Maja.

The young striker, so impressive in pre-season, is set to return against Hertha Berlin alongside McNair and all will be keenly watching to see if he can bring his obvious technical skill and impressive stature on the ball to a higher level.

Having pushed ahead of Joel Asoro in 2017, he will be an option off the bench to help Sunderland threaten late on in games. Like McNair, however, October may see him get more U23 than senior minutes.

The picture emerging, nevertheless, is of a squad more than strong enough to compete in the second tier. The room for excuses is getting increasingly small.