Head coach of promotion-chasing Sunderland handed MAJOR fitness boost
Lee Johnson has revealed that Arbenit Xhemajli has rejoined full training with the Sunderland first team.
Though the Kosovan remains some way off a return to competitive action, it marks a major milestone in his recovery from major knee ligament damage.
The 23-year-old had made just one appearance from the Black Cats after joining from Neuchatel Xamax when he suffered the injury while on international duty.
Sunderland paid compensation to secure the signature of the highly-rated defender, who they still hope can make an impact this season.
Johnson is eager not to rush him back into action, but has been very encouraged by the early signs in training.
"Arbenit trained with us today," Johnson said.
"He's obviously a bit of a way off in terms of being considered for selection, but it was good to see him out there.
"He's trained properly for the last couple of days and that's a real heartwarming moment, because I know how hard he's had to work and how hard to work the physios to get to this point.
"That's really good news for us.
"It's really important that we protect him because it was a really, really bad injury.
"I'm wincing every time he goes in for a 50/50 but every time he comes out of it, that belief from all of us grows stronger.
"He looks strong, solid and he's a great professional.
"It can't have been easy to move to a new country, and then get an injury like that almost straight away.
"It would be easy for him to feel a bit isolated but he's a top professional, we took him up to Edinburgh in pre-season so he could feel part of it and I think he does feel a part of it here."
Johnson had previously said that while he could make some form of return before then, he felt that not until the turn of the year could any real judgement be made on Xhemajli's progress.
The head coach still feels that is a fair timeline, but the Kosovan could make his return in U23 fixtures in a month or so.
"I think that's still generally the timescale from my perspective," Johnson said.
"U23 games will definitely be something we consider, probably over the next sort of six weeks. I think that's an option for us.
"He's got to feel comfortable and the physio has got to feel comfortable, that's the most important thing.
"Right now I can only go on what I've seen as we've brought him back over the last couple of days and I've been really impressed with where he is.
"Physically he looks good, quick and strong.
"Now it's about his getting his bearings in the sessions, and building him into the tactical side of things.
"Hopefully as we do that the knee and the thigh and the areas around that stay solid and grow in strength."
The Black Cats have recruited two defenders over the summer to ensure Johnson's options remain strong in Xhemajli's absence.