Bruce cautions against early recall for crucial Cattermole

Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, will not take any chances with Lee Cattermole as he closes in on a return from injury.

The 21-year-old midfielder has been out of action since damaging his medial ligament during Sunderland's 1-0 Premier League win over Liverpool on 17 October.

Of the seven games he has missed to date, Sunderland have won only one, and Bruce admitted after his side's 1-0 defeat at Fulham on Sunday that they had missed the combative player. For that reason, he is desperately keen to have Cattermole back, and is keeping a close eye on him after his return to training.

However, while the Stockton-born player is expected to return to full fitness and be ready to play once again by the end of this month, his manager will take no risks. Bruce said: "The one thing about Lee is we will just have to make sure he is ready.

"Any time you have a medial ligament injury like he has, you have got to be a little bit careful. The last thing we want to do is bring him back too quickly. He has been absolutely fantastic in training. He has not joined in with us, but he is working extremely hard with the physios. He is not a million miles away, which will be a huge lift to everybody."

Cattermole has made a major impact since his £6m summer move to the Stadium of Light from Bruce's former club Wigan Athletic.

Bruce spent much of the summer attempting to persuade the Wigan chairman Dave Whelan to part with a man for whom he had paid Middlesbrough £3.5m 12 months earlier, and eventually made the breakthrough in August.

Until his injury, he had formed a formidable central midfield partnership with the Albania captain Lorik Cana, a £5m acquisition from Marseilles.

Indeed, the fact that Cattermole has made only eight appearances for the club is a measure of how quickly he has adapted to his new surroundings with many observers citing his absence as one of the major reasons for the team's recent indifferent form.

The defeat at Fulham was Sunderland's sixth in eight attempts away from home, where they have taken only four points from a possible 24 to date. By contrast, they have won five and drawn one of their seven home league games, a record they will hope to extend when bottom-of-the-table Portsmouth and Aston Villa visit Wearside in quick succession in the next few days.

But Bruce will have to contend with something of a defensive crisis for the Pompey match with three of the players who lined up at the back last Sunday likely to be unavailable.

The full-backs Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson are both suspended after reaching five bookings for the season, while the central defender Anton Ferdinand suffered an ankle injury.

In addition, George McCartney missed the match at Craven Cottage with a hamstring problem, John Mensah is out with a calf injury and the goalkeeper Craig Gordon is nursing a broken arm.

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