Weighing up Sunderland’s Bryan Oviedo conundrum and whether he can play a part in promotion battle after failed West Brom move
Injury to Reece James meant that for the first time in a while, a spot at left back in a league game was up for grabs.
Conspicious by his absence was Bryan Oviedo.
Adam Matthews got the nod, with Denver Hume on the bench.
Oviedo did not travel.
His Sunderland career is drifting. An established international and one of the biggest earners at the club, he has not been able to hold down a spot in the side as the likes of Lee Cattermole and Aiden McGeady have done.
In fact, the 29-year-old has not had any senior action since facing Manchester City U21s towards the end of January, shortly before a loan switch to West Brom collapsed just minutes before the transfer window shut.
His absence since then has raised obvious questions about what is happening behind the scenes.
Jack Ross has been asked regularly about Oviedo’s whereabouts.
He has consistently put it down to injury and fitness issues.
Oviedo has had a calf problem, a knee problem and a calf problem again.
He is fit now, but amidst a demanding match schedule, training has been disrupted.
So Ross made clear the day before the trip to Oakwell that Oviedo’s return should not be expected.
“Bryan trained on Monday, but, I think he’s trained 17 days in the last two and a bit months,” he said. “He’s not started a league game since Shrewsbury [on December 29th]. “So he’s a bit off match fitness, he’s not trained much at all.”
While Hume has not had much action since an injury of his own, he has been back in uninterrupted training for an extended period and has U23 minutes under his belt.
All of which leaves Oviedo in a bit of a bind.
There are two Costa Rica friendlies in the international break, should he be selected.
That could offer a chance to build match fitness but if not, he will have to try and get up to speed in two weeks of full training at the Academy of Light.
Whether he will force is way back into contention even if he does that is a separate and equally fair question.
There is good reason to think that Ross genuinely sees him as his third choice left back.
There have been no issues with the pair, Oviedo is hardly a player who could ever be considered a disruptive influence. He has made some key contributions this season, most notably that wonderful cross on the opening day of the seaosn that allowed Lynden Gooch to score one of the most cathartic goals in the club’s recent history.
But whether Ross sees him as defensively robust enough is another issue.
It is surely notable that Oviedo has regularly been a player he has turned to from the bench when seeking an extra bit of attacking quality in the final third.
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He even experimented with using him as a winger at Walsall earlier in the season.
So the Black Cats boss would probably agree with fans who identify his ability as a potential weapon in the final ten, critical games of the season.
The response from Ross would be that he needs to get fit and stay fit.
Then, he has to push himself past Reece James, who deserves more credit than he has received for delivering consistent performances over and over again.
He may not have the same spark as Oviedo, but rarely gets caught out and has proved a dependable foil which, most importantly, has allowed Aiden McGeady to stay high and cause opponents constant problems.
Do not underestimate just how highly Ross rates Hume, either.
The 20-year-old was thriving before picking up a knee injury at Coventry City and Ross believes he has a real long-term future at the club. Addressing his contract uncertaintly recently, Ross went well beyond the usual platititudes in his praise for the youngster.
“Denver, I think he’s really blossomed this season,” he said.
“Even just how he trains in the group every day, he’s good, he’s really come on this season.
“I’ve been really pleased with him.
“I keep reminding him of that, if he looks at where he was in the summer to where he is now, he’s had the frustration of the injury but he’s been really good for us and I’m really keen to keep him.”
So the path to the squad is not easy for Oviedo.
It is difficult to ultimately avoid dwelling on Chairman Stewart Donald’s post-January comments, when he admitted the potential loan switch to West Brom was not all that financially beneficial to Sunderland.
The idea was that regular gametime would get him fit and perhaps put him in the shop window for the summer, when Ross could make significant changes to his squad by freeing up those wages.
An eminently sensible ploy, providing the player is not prominent in your plans.
There is absolutely no question that Oviedo has the quality to have a say in this promotion run-in.
The two big questions are
1) Can he stay fit long enough to prove it?
And 2) Can he prove he offer the same defensive stability as his rivals?
At the moment, it looks a long shot.