MICK McCARTHY laid down the gauntlet to striker Michael Bridges ahead of Sunderland's trip to Crewe Alexandra by challenging him to hold on to his first team place.

The Sunderland boss has always insisted that Marcus Stewart and Stephen Elliott are his first choice centre forward pairing.

But, with Elliott still struggling with a groin strain for this afternoon's Championship clash at Gresty Road, McCarthy admitted Bridges has the perfect opportunity to jump up the pecking order and stake his claim.

The former Leeds United striker did his chances no harm with an impressive performance at Burnley last week. McCarthy hailed the 26-year-old's display as his 'best game' since he returned to the club.

"I thought Bridgey was excellent on Friday night," admitted McCarthy. "It makes it a lot easier for me that he has come in and done as well as he did with Stephen not being fully fit.

"Stephen and Stewy are still my first choice partnership if they are fully fit. But we have ten games left and it is important we by rush him (Elliott) back too soon and find he is out of action for four or five games."

When Leeds swooped to take Bridges to Elland Road in £5m transfer nearly six years ago, he was tipped for honours and international glory.

McCarthy acknowledged that things haven't gone quite as well as he expected for the skilful striker this season, and added that perhaps he hasn't done himself any justice since returning to the Wearside.

But now that Bridges is injury free the Black Cats' boss feels it is time he finally fulfilled his potential.

"I've said to him, when he has had the opportunity he hasn't taken it when he should have done," reflected McCarthy.

"I thought earlier on when he got in the team he perhaps could have done better with a couple of his chances.

"I had a chat with him about it last Thursday week. Of all the players that have come here, he's the one who has played in the Champions League and, was at one stage touted as one of England's brightest talents.

"He's had a terrible time with injuries but now he's come back and trained and he's fit and, I want to see him back to something like that. I think he responded really well on Friday and put in a good performance.

"The challenge for him is to score goals and stay in the team. I only pick the team on performances. People can look at me and say I'm contradicting myself with my first choice team, but it's not cut and dried.

"Someone might have a couple of bad games, or someone might get suspended, and if you get in and do well and it is up to you.

"He has got the ability, you should see him in training.

"I think he might have responded to the pressure of the other two (Stewart and Elliott) who have been brilliant.

"They have been playing very well and been sticking the ball in the net. And if you're sat thinking they are my first choice, and they keep scoring every week, if that doesn't inspire you to do something nothing ever will."

McCarthy also hailed George McCartney's performance at Turf Moor last Friday and thought he handled the physical assault by Ade Akinbiyi, who was sent off, very well.

The Sunderland manager did admit, however, that he would have handled things a little differently in his day as a player.

He said: "I though George was absolutely brilliant all night long. His performance was top draw offensively and defensively - and to get the treatment that he got with the headbutt.

"A lot of people would have handled it differently, but I thought he handled it really well.

"I wouldn't have let Akinbiyi do that to me in the first place.

"He would have been picking himself off the ground with the first challenge. It would never have come to that with me. I've told you before, I usually retaliated first."

The Black Cats visit a Crewe side this afternoon who have not registered a win since a 2-0 away victory at Leeds on New Year's Day - 11 games ago - and on the back of three consecutive heavy defeats.

McCarthy, however, was quick to point out that form is irrelevant as the Wearsiders' recent trip to Brighton proved.

The Railwaymen have enjoyed some good fortune against the Black Cats recently.

In McCarthy's words, Sunderland left Gresty Road with a 'slapping' in last season's league encounter which they lost 3-0.

They also crashed out of the Coca Cola Cup at Crewe on penalties earlier this season, after a late goal sent the tie into extra time.

"They were possibly two of our best performances and we got nothing from them, which highlights the danger of this league," said McCarthy.

"Every week we seem to be playing someone who has either won five or six games, or nine or ten, and we have to be careful.

"Or, someone hasn't won a game for five or six and it is about time they did and it's going to be against us.

"As long as we play the way we have in the last three games then we should be alright."

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