ARBENIT XHEMAJLI is not expected to feature in Sunderland’s Papa John’s Trophy tie with Manchester United Under-21s tomorrow evening, with the Black Cats’ medical staff determined to tread carefully with the Kosovan defender.

Xhemajli was sidelined for more than a year after damaging his cruciate ligaments while on international duty in September 2020.

Having stepped up his training programme in the last few weeks, the centre-half returned to action last weekend as he played in the opening 45 minutes of Sunderland Under-23s’ 2-1 Premier League Cup win over Leeds United at the Stadium of Light.

He has shown no ill effects from that run-out, but with tomorrow evening’s Trophy game coming just four days after his weekend run-out, there is a determination not to do too much, too soon.

“It might be a little bit early for Arby,” said Under-23s boss Elliott Dickman, who was on pre-match media duty today. “He’s had a very bad injury and the medical staff here at the club will always be very thorough with their planning of his return to play.

“It could be a little bit early for him, but the manager will make the final decision on that. It was great to see him get 45 minutes on Sunday though, and he was a great help to the younger players.”

Sunderland began their defence of the Papa John’s Trophy with a 2-1 win at Lincoln last week, and having selected an inexperienced side at Sincil Bank, Lee Johnson is set to name an even more youthful line-up tomorro.

The vast majority of the Black Cats’ starting line-up will be drawn from the Under-23 ranks, with a number of senior players away on international duty and Johnson mindful of the need to ensure his squad is as fresh as possible ahead of a busy week that will see them play back-to-back away games at Gillingham and Crewe before hosting Charlton a week on Saturday.

Retaining the Papa John’s Trophy is currently low down on Sunderland’s list of priorities, but Dickman nevertheless insists tomorrow’s game against Manchester United’s youngsters will be given the respect it deserves.

“We’re treating it as a first-team game,” he said. “We want to be competitive and want to try to win the game. We’re the holders of the Trophy and whatever side goes out there, we want them to do right by the club and right by the fans. The manager is going to pick a side that’s going to be competitive."