The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations is causing David Moyes concern as Sunderland could be without FOUR key players for a crucial part of the season.
The tournament takes place in Gabon in January and February and selected players could be missing for several weeks – if their country makes it all the way to the final.
Sunderland have five African players on the books, although South African midfielder Steven Pienaar – who joined on a free in the summer – has retired from international football.
But Ivorian centre-back Lamine Kone, Tunisian winger Wahbi Khazri and Gabonese central midfielder Didier Ndong are all expected to be involved in the tournament.
Papy Djilobodji was not included in the recent Senegal squad, but a regular run in the Sunderland side in the Premier League will enhance his chances of a January call-up.
It leaves Moyes with a major headache and the club would need reinforcements lined up at the start of the January transfer window.
“It is a big concern,” Moyes said.
“At the moment, Papy Djilobodji has not been called up, or wasn’t in the last squad, so we might not lose him.
“But Lamine Kone would be out, also Dider Ndong and Wahbi Khazri.
“We knew that this was coming our way in January – that is one of the problems.
“Khazri and Kone were, of course, already at the club, but we brought in Didier and Papy this summer, who both could be away.
“They were the options available to us though. It was harder [this summer] to sign non-African players.”
Call-ups for both Kone and Djilobodji, an £8million summer capture from Chelsea, would leave Sunderland without their first-choice central defensive partnership.
It would leave Moyes with just John O’Shea and Jason Denayer, on a season-long loan from Manchester City, as cover, although Jack Rodwell and Paddy McNair can play there.
Sunderland would need to look to strengthen the squad in January anyway, but the issue makes it more pressing.
Host country Gabon will use four venues for the 16-team tournament, which will be played in January and February.
During the international break, Khazri was on the scoresheet as Tunisia qualified for the tournament after beating Republic of Liberia 4-1.
Meanwhile, Kone completed 90 minutes as reigning champions Ivory Coast booked their place after a draw with Sierra Leone.