It is fair to say that Sunderland have had mixed fortunes with injuries so far this season. Whilst they have managed to keep a lot of key players fit consistently, they have been without a number of other options for a considerable period.
However, with some of those players now back involved or well on the way to a return, can this young Sunderland squad show its full potential?
The striking department is one area where the Black Cats have seen a boost in terms of availability in recent weeks. New recruits, Nazariy Rusyn and Eliezer Mayenda, have both shaken off early injuries and have begun to feature in first team duties.
Rusyn has unsurprisingly been more prominent, starting the last two league matches against Swansea and Birmingham. While the Ukrainian has yet to open his account, he has put in a couple of very solid performances, being desperately unlucky not to get off the mark against Birmingham last time out, when his effort smacked the inside of the post.
He did contribute in that match though, providing an intelligent assist for Jobe Bellingham’s eventual opener. The forward was a constant livewire against the Blues, making several threatening runs and was always looking to get on the end of loose balls.
It was therefore a slight surprise when he was withdrawn just before the hour, but his substitution allowed fellow new boy Mayenda to act as the main forward threat when he came on for his debut shortly after. The young Spaniard was to take his chance, showing numerous glimpses of the player that has been exciting Tony Mowbray in training.
The forward looked quick, powerful and agile and was only denied a debut strike by a superb reaction block from veteran keeper John Ruddy. Of course, strikers are in teams to score and at some point these promising displays will have to be matched with goals, but if Rusyn and - Mayenda in particular - can be kept fit, it seems like those goals will come.
Midfield is another area where Sunderland have experienced some welcome returns. Both Adil Aouchiche and Bradley Dack have returned to the fold in recent weeks after brief layoffs.
Aouchiche made a scoring return to action before the international break, showing great desire and awareness to get on the end of Jack Clarke’s pinpoint cross to grab his first goal for the club. The young Frenchman has been impressive since his arrival from Lorient in the summer, looking classy on the ball, and could easily have opened his account before the strike against Birmingham, with a couple of very near misses.
The youngster has so far been limited to substitute appearances; however boss Mowbray has said he will be given a chance to start matches around the hectic festive period. Sunderland fans will certainly be hoping he hasn’t lost any of the sharpness or skill that he had been displaying prior to picking up a minor injury in the defeat at Stoke City a few weeks ago.
Veteran Dack is another who has recently returned to the squad, but he has found it more difficult to re-establish himself on the pitch. The forward has yet to start a match since his return and has only managed two brief spells off the bench.
However, the fact he has been named amongst the subs for the last three matches suggests he is now over his injury issues, which will be a welcome boost to Mowbray. Like Aouchiche, he will probably get his opportunities during the busy festive period, so long as injuries don’t return to plague the veteran.
Defence has been an area where Sunderland have not had as much recent good fortune on the injury front. The Wearsiders lost full back Dennis Cirkin to a recurrence of a hamstring injury in the warm-up against Birmingham, with Mowbray admitting that the full back faces a few weeks on the sidelines having only just returned from a similar issue.
They have also been rocked by suggestions that influential center half Dan Ballard has picked up a hamstring issue of his own while on international duty with Northern Ireland, although Mowbray has admitted the defender has trained with the side on Thursday giving hope that he will be passed fit.
Losing both would be huge blows to the back line and will present real issues for Mowbray heading into the busiest portion of the season. However, there are some rays of light in this department, as fan favourite Aji Alese has been making good progress in his rehabilitation and a return to action may not be too far away.
The same can be said for new recruit Timothee Pembele, who arrived with an injury but has been making good progress and could be considered for first team duties in the not-too-distant future.
Backup centre backs Jenson Seelt and Nectarios Triantis also showed some good signs against Birmingham, suggesting they could do a job if needed to be called upon for a lengthy period. Even though there have been a couple of setbacks in the last couple of weeks, there is still positivity in this area and the defence could still turn into an area of strength if players continue on their way to making speedy recoveries and any new injuries are not too severe.
Overall, the news has been generally good in the last few weeks, and with more players heading towards a return around the New Year this Sunderland squad could definitely begin to show just how good they can collectively be.