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Controversy as Real enter Pogba race

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O'Neill hopes for injury-free Bramble

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill believes defender Titus Bramble still has a part to play this season - if he can remain fit.

Bramble, 31, has made four appearances in the current campaign, deputising for the now fit-again Carlos Cuellar.

But despite facing competition for a place in the club's starting line-up from the likes of Cuellar and John O'Shea, O'Neill feels Bramble's biggest challenge will be staying fit.

"Titus's problems are always about staying fit," the manager told the Sunderland Echo. "It is always a balancing act with Titus in training during the week - we have to get as much training into him without aggravating any injuries or risking swelling of the knees.

"It's a shame because you can see just how good he could have been had it not been for the injuries, but he still has a lot to offer.

"He's bigger and stronger than he looks, too. From a distance or on television you'd think he'd be 5ft 11ins but he's actually a big player and he won't get out-muscled by anyone.

"There are positions now at the club where we have genuine competition for places and that's what you really need because your whole squad is going to be tested across the course of the campaign."

O'Neill also took time to praise utility man Craig Gardner after his solid displays at right-back in place of the injured Phil Bardsley.

However, O'Neill says he sees Gardner as first and foremost a midfielder rather than a defender.

"Craig has done very, very well indeed as he is essentially a midfield player," O'Neill said. "I probably didn't expect Phil to be out for the length of time that he has been.

"He injured himself in the first three days of pre-season training. Craig has filled in there and he has done brilliantly for us, really brilliantly, and I couldn't really ask for any more.

"Craig has learned that position. He did fill in on occasions at Aston Villa there, but he is a stronger player now and I think he is a better player now.

"He is less daunted by it, too. He always felt that wingers were coming at him left, right and centre. Now he is capable of coping with it."

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