LEE Cattermole is a doubt for today's Premier League trip to Reading after feeling further pain in his knee this week, but Martin O'Neill is confident the Sunderland skipper will make a full recovery from his latest ligament problems.
Cattermole was sidelined for a month-and-half with knee ligament damage earlier in the season, and suffered a recurrence of the problem on the training ground last month.
He visited a specialist in London to assess the extent of the injury, but it was decided that surgery was not required.
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The midfielder returned to training earlier this week, but was forced to curtail his involvement on Thursday when he felt a twinge in his knee.
The setback has jeopardised his availability for today's visit to the Madejski Stadium, but O'Neill is adamant the longer-term prognosis remains positive.
"In the medium to long term, we're absolutely confident everything will be okay," said the Sunderland boss. "But with a ligament injury, I know what it is like, you feel a twinge in training and worry about it.
"You need a second opinion and you need the physios to tell you they think it is fine. As a manager, they are things you have to accept and I go with them, they're solvable.
"I've spoken to the physios and he actually texted them on (Thursday) afternoon saying don't rule me out of training. He's desperately keen to play."
Today's game offers Sunderland another opportunity to move into the top half of the table, but the Wearsiders will surely have to improve on their below-par showing in Tuesday's bore draw with Swansea.
Despite having carved out a succession of chances in their previous outing at Wigan, O'Neill's side struggled to create a meaningful opportunity as they failed to score for the ninth time this season.
Their form remains patchy, with highlights such as the recent wins over Manchester City, West Ham and Wigan interspersed with January's more disappointing displays against Liverpool, Bolton and Swansea.
Performance levels vary wildly from one game to the next, and O'Neill admits achieving a greater level of consistency is a key target in the final three-and-a-half months of the season.
"That really is something we have to strive for," he said. "We need some genuinely decent consistency, that's important.
"We were really excellent against West Ham, then maybe should have got through against Bolton but didn't do enough. We then played brilliantly against Wigan, and although the next game against Swansea was always going to be difficult game for us, we eked out a draw.
"The challenge now is to become more consistent and make sure our standards don't slip from what we know we're capable of."
Reading are six places below the Black Cats in the table, but the Royals have become adept at producing a late comeback in recent matches.
They scored three goals in the final eight minutes to claim a 3-2 win over West Brom three weeks ago, and followed up that success by grabbing two goals in the final 20 minutes to claim victory at Newcastle.
They were at it again on Wednesday, with Adam Le Fondre's late double securing the 2-2 draw with Chelsea that lifted them out of the bottom three.
Having spent most of the season as one of the favourites to go down, their recent upturn has given them a realistic chance of survival, with O'Neill highlighting the Royals' never-say-die attitude as one of their key strengths.
"We played them fairly recently (when Sunderland won 3-0) and I think they'll have been disappointed with their performance at the Stadium of Light," he said. "But since then, they've bounced back brilliantly."That great win against West Bromwich Albion seems to have spurred them on, and they never seem to be beaten. They were 2-0 down on Wednesday evening, but were able to fight back then against Chelsea.
"It won't be easy for us. They've always had a pretty decent attitude, and you wouldn't expect anything else from a side that had to fight really hard to get into the Premier League. They won't be giving that up lightly."
Danny Rose will return to Sunderland's starting line-up this afternoon after recovering from the hamstring injury that ruled him out of the club's last four matches.
Carlos Cuellar is also fit again, but the centre-half could have to be content with a place on the substitutes' bench after Titus Bramble impressed alongside John O'Shea four days ago.