Steve Bruce is hoping Lee Cattermole's impending return to action could rekindle Sunderland's Barclays Premier League charge.
The 21-year-old midfielder has missed the last seven league games with a medial ligament injury and in his absence, the Black Cats have collected three points only once.
That run of indifferent results was capped on Saturday when bottom-of-the-table Portsmouth emerged from their trip to the Stadium of Light with a draw to show for their efforts after Younes Kaboul's injury-time strike ruined Bruce's day.
Cattermole will be a bystander once again this evening when high-flying Aston Villa arrive on Wearside, but he could play for the reserves the following day and that would put him right back in the frame for selection.
Bruce said: "I was asked the question would we miss Lee. It's a bit unfair to just label one player, but he had such an influence in the team early doors that we haven't looked quite the same without him.
"Without his competitive skills, which he has in abundance, we have missed him, it's quite simple to see that.
"I said we would judge it in six, seven, eight weeks - well, it is fairly evident that the boy has had such an impact on the team, and it's good to see him in and around it."
Cattermole was injured during the 1-0 win over Liverpool on October 17, and the club's only victory since then came on November 21 when Arsenal left the north-east on the wrong end of the same scoreline.
The former Middlesbrough and Wigan enforcer is understandably desperate to return and is well ahead of schedule, but having seen how badly he has been missed, Bruce is in no mood to rush things.
He said: "He has just got that infectious enthusiasm and he wants to play football.
"I predicted he would be back...we were thinking about 12 weeks - well, it was eight weeks on Saturday.
"I have just got to be careful. I have got to make sure I don't rush the kid too much because he is desperate to play and that is written all over him."
Injuries and suspensions severely limited Bruce's options at the weekend, and he will have Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley back from disciplinary bans tonight.
However, Nyron Nosworthy performed so well in right-back Bardsley's absence that his return is by no means certain.
Bruce said: "Nyron is becoming a cult hero here, that's pretty evident, and I can understand why.
"He epitomises what I like in a footballer. He might not be naturally blessed with the best of skills, but by God, the kid gives you everything he has got.
"Certainly, he gives me a headache for tonight because arguably, he was our best player on Saturday."Reuse content