Bardsley on comeback trail
Sunderland defender Phil Bardsley is expected to step up his return from injury in a behind-closed-doors-friendly on Thursday.
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The 27-year-old Scotland international, who has not played since damaging an ankle just days into the Black Cats' pre-season campaign, has been pencilled in to feature against a Middlesbrough XI at the Teesside club's Rockliffe Park training headquarters on Thursday afternoon.
Bardsley is understood to be several weeks ahead of schedule in his recovery after undergoing surgery to remove fragments of bone from his ankle, but remains some way from match fitness.
But should he emerge unscathed from Thursday's outing, he could be included as an over-age player in the Under-21s squad for Monday's game at Stoke.
In the absence of Martin O'Neill's first-choice right-back, midfielder Craig Gardner has deputised more than ably with Sunderland having enjoyed an unbeaten start to the campaign.
But there is little doubt he would prefer to line up in the middle of the park, where there is currently a vacancy with skipper Lee Cattermole serving a three-match ban.
However, with champions Manchester City and derby rivals Newcastle to come in their next two games either side of the break for international matches, Gardner is likely to remain in the back four until Bardsley is up to full speed.