Sunderland boss reveals promising update on Arbenit Xhemajli's return to the first-team
Lee Johnson says Arbenit Xhemajli is nearing the point where he can be considered a first-team option, but has warned that the club's excellent form means he is likely to have to be patient in his search for regular minutes.
Xhemajli has thus far made an uninterrupted comeback from a major knee injury that kept him sidelined for over a year, and featured again as Sunderland U23s came back from 3-0 down on Wednesday night to draw 3-3 with Leeds United in the Premier League Cup.
So far the Kosovan's senior involvement has been limited to the Papa John's Trophy defeat against Oldham Athletic, but he has trained regularly with the first-team group.
Johnson said throughout Xhemajli's recovery that the severity of the injury meant that the 23-year-old would need time to build the strength back in his knee, and that he would not be making any judgements on his first-team suitability until this month.
The head coach says that time is arriving but with his senior defenders in superb form, no changes are imminent.
"I think we're nearing that judgement," Johnson said.
"I think Arby would say that he feels ready to be judged in terms of, he's had a decent number of minutes now and has been training with the first team.
"There'll be an opportunity at some point for Arby and Ollie Younger, but obviously while the boys in the team are doing well they will stay there."
Though the striker still has some way to go in his recovery, Johnson admits that the possible return of Nathan Broadhead later in the season could be a major boost.
Broadhead does not need surgery on a hamstring injury that will therefore keep him sidelined for nine to ten weeks, rather than five months.
"The key element is that he doesn't need surgery," Johnson said.
"That would have taken it to about five months if he did, so that's really positive.
"We know how good he is and how much of an impact a fully fit Nathan Broadhead can have. It would be a lift for everyone to get him back so hopefully we can."