With first-choice centre-backs Ron Vlaar and Philippe Senderos both going down with injuries on international duty over the past week, the time could finally have come for Jores Okore to step out of the wilderness at Aston Villa.
Signing from FC Nordsjælland last summer for around £4 million, despite acknowledged interest from Chelsea, Okore made just four total appearances during his first season at Villa before rupturing his ACL in a game against Newcastle United on September 14.
He managed to return to the pitch during pre-season, and has since featured twice for the club's reserves, as well as for both Denmark's senior side and Under-21s, but a first-team return under Paul Lambert continues to elude him.
Even with Vlaar missing six weeks earlier in the campaign with a nagging calf issue, and Senderos sidelined for the past four league matches with a thigh strain, the eight-time capped defender has continued to be overlooked, as both Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark have been preferred to either step into the line-up or warm the bench.
Despite fans being baffled at his continued absence, Lambert contended last month that, while the promising 22-year-old is fit, he still has to up his game to finally make a comeback.
"He's got to do more for me and force my hand. He's doing a lot better in the games we've had in training and he's getting up to speed with things,” he told reporters.
"He's got force his way into the side like anyone. Senderos and Vlaar have been playing ever so well.
"He has to make it difficult for me, as with any players you want them to make it difficult for you and give you a problem."
|2013-14 Premier League||Position||Team||Errors Lead To Shot||Total Tackles GAME||Total Clearances GAME||Aerial Duels Won GAME||Aerial Duel Success||Interceptions GAME||Fouls GAME||Passing Accuracy||Appearances||Mins Played|
|Jores Okore||DF||Aston Villa||0||1.67||5||1||60%||1||1||88%||3||167|
With a spate of injuries hitting the club’s back-line, though, Lambert might have no choice but to turn to Okore.
Just 24 hours after Senderos was ruled out of Switzerland’s Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Lithuania on Saturday night after limping out of training with a calf injury, Villa would suffer another fitness blow when Vlaar was forced off in the 24th-minute of the Netherlands’ 3-2 defeat to Mexico with a calf problem of his own.
While boss Guus Hiddink has since revealed that the Dutchman isn’t suffering from a recurrence of the same niggling issue which has seen him miss 19 league games over the past three seasons, his remark that “it does not look good” is far from encouraging.
With there being a serious risk that both veterans could be out for Villa’s first game after international break at home to Southampton on November 24, and main back-up Baker already struggling with a twisted knee picked up in last Saturday’s 0-0 draw at West Ham United, Clark and Okore might be all Lambert has to turn to.
In the Dane's case, that might not be such a downgrade, given his undoubted potential, but it’s hard to know for certain when he has had so few opportunities to impress in the west midlands thus far.