LEE Cattermole is set to miss the busy Festive period through injury.
Unconfirmed reports suggest the Sunderland captain could be ruled out for two months with a knee injury, his second in four days.
The fear is he has damaged medial ligaments in his right knee.
With the outside chance of the Black Cats being in the relegation zone by then, Sunday’s Premier League game at Norwich City will be important enough, but the subsequent seven matches include five against teams who qualified for Europe last season.
They face Chelsea (home), Manchester United (away), Manchester City, Tottenham (both home) and Liverpool (away) before the FA Cup third round.
The other two games in the sequence are against Reading and Southampton – two of the four teams currently below them in the table.
Cattermole could miss all those matches, and more besides.
Manager Martin O’Neill gambled by selecting the Teessider against Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday despite having limped off in the first half against West Bromwich Albion with a left knee problem.
He lasted just over six minutes against the Rs before succumbing to the effects a heavy Stephane Mbia challenge had on his “good” knee.
“It’s a different knee he injured, which is really unlucky for him,” said O’Neill. “He was in a fair amount of pain after the game and I don’t think the signs are brilliant.”
In the short term, his absence is exacerbated by the calf problem vice-captain John O’Shea picked up in last week’s 4-2 defeat by West Brom, though it is only expected to keep him out for a couple of weeks. Phil Bardsley ended both games wearing the captain’s armband.
Cattermole’s injury will almost certainly mean a reprieve for Jack Colback, dropped for the first time this season against QPR only to play all but the first seven minutes of the match.
With David Vaughan his only senior rival in midfield, Colback has quickly become an important figure once more as the only natural ball-winner available to O’Neill.
That one injury could – not for the first time – cause Sunderland so many problems highlights the need for reinforcements in the January transfer window.
The Black Cats also do not have any specialist cover for either full-back, while Swansea’s Gateshead-born striker Danny Graham has been linked with the Wearsiders.
“We will certainly have to look at that situation,” said O’Neill of the injury to Cattermole (below).
“We don’t have the biggest squad in the world – we might even have the smallest one. That said, we have to see through to January and at this minute it’s six games away. That’s a lot of points to play for.”
A draw for Aston Villa at bottom-placed QPR would take them above Sunderland tomorrow, while Southampton could go level on points with a draw at Liverpool, but their goal difference means only victory will allow them to leapfrog the Black Cats. Sunderland already have a game in hand, against Reading next month.
O’Neill will have one less headache in January if Wes Brown continues his encouraging progress as he returns from a knee injury.
On paper Sunderland are well stocked with centre-backs, but Brown and Titus Bramble have been dogged by injury since O’Neill’s appointment a year ago next week.
They were the central defensive pairing for his first month in charge but have made a total of just 15 appearances under him. Brown has not played competitively since January because of knee problems.
“He’s making progress again,” said O’Neill. “He had a real setback, but he is feeling much, much better now, and while he does work with the physios away from the main group, he feels as if he is making good progress.”
Brown has had two setbacks this year – in July and October – so it is too soon to predict when he will play again. He has made 34 Sunder-land appearances since leaving Man United in the summer of 2011.