Martin O'Neill is preparing himself for the final eight games of the season without captain Lee Cattermole.
Cattermole, 24, has endured an injury-plagued season since twisting his knee against Queens Park Rangers in November.
Having returned against Arsenal last month, the midfielder was forced off just before half-time amid problems with his other knee. Currently undergoing a course of injections, O'Neill has admitted that seeing his skipper return before the end of the season would be an unexpected bonus.
"Lee has a few more days to go after having had the injection," he told the Shields Gazette. "The specialist told him not to do a great deal, and while he is obviously working with the physiotherapist, he is not doing anything that will risk damaging his knee.
"We hope for the best, but to me, if he comes back this season, then that would be a bonus, and an unexpected bonus. We may have to cope without him. And even if he does successfully come back from the injury, he will still be nowhere near match fit, as things stand.
"We have had to do without him pretty much all season. He has definitely been a loss to us, no question about that. We have missed that drive, the things that he would give us, but we have had to make do without it."
"We've had different combinations in midfield, we've had to play midfield players at full-back - all those type of things which eventually get lost in the mix. It has been a tough old season. It has been tough since the very first day down at the Emirates Stadium and that's just the way it has been. But I think because we've been uncomfortably placed, the players are used to that, and should be able to rise to the occasion in these key games ahead."
Meanwhile, Sunderland have announced that they will release five players at the end of the season, including striker Ryan Noble. The 21-year-old will join Ben Wilson, Wade Joyce, Adam Reed and Anthony Callaghan in departing Wearside this summer.
By far the most senior of the group having made his Premier League debut against Everton in 2011, Noble also spent time on loan at Derby County, Watford and more recently Hartlepool United. Confirming the departures, development manager Kevin Ball admitted those let go needed first team football to aid their development.
"Ryan, Adam and Ben are three more 'senior' players who have been at the club a long time so it is upsetting to let them go," he told the Evening Chronicle. "But all are at the stage of their careers now where, for their own goo, they need to be getting their careers going by playing first-team football.
"Wade has been given the option of finding another club and is currently on trial at Sheffield Wednesday. Anthony Callaghan is injured and we're working hard to get him fit, hopefully match fit enough so he can get the opportunity to go on trial. This gives them a big opportunity and we hope they'll stay, but they have to understand that a new contract doesn't give them a right to play in the first-team but it is up to them to work hard and keep progressing."