Manchester United are increasingly confident defender Eric Bailly will return in time for the Champions League last-16 clash with Sevilla next month, reports claim.
The Ivory Coast centre-back has not played since undergoing surgery on an ankle injury suffered while on international duty. He was expected to be out for between two and three months after undergoing surgery in mid-December.
But instead of being lined up to play for United in the fifth round of the FA Cup on the weekend of 17 February – Jose Mourinho's side face the lowest ranked team left in the competition, Yeovil Town, in the fourth round – Bailly's comeback is now a week behind schedule.
ESPN FC understands United's medical team are optimistic the 23-year-old can resume his season when they travel to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium to face the La Liga side in the first leg of the round of 16 on 22 February.
Formerly of Villarreal, Bailly has not played for United since the 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Bonfire Night and has featured just 10 times in all competitions during the 2017-18 campaign.
But earlier this month, Bailly posted a video updating his progress in returning from his latest injury, having not travelled with the rest of the United squad to their mid-season training camp in Dubai, to raise hopes he could play a major role in the final third of the season.
The news is a much-needed boost for United, whose other injury victims appear no closer to a first-team return. Michael Carrick is still recovering from a minor heart procedure, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic is being treated for recurring pain in his troublesome knee.
Bailly's imminent return could trigger the departure of Axel Tuanzebe on loan for the rest of the season. The England Under-21 international has been linked with a move to Aston Villa, but Mourinho is unwilling to sanction the switch until he is assured of having sufficient cover.
Speaking earlier in January, Mourinho appeared more than open to allowing Tuanzebe, who has made just five senior appearances this term, to depart. "Tuanzebe is a very good player that is not having lots of possibilities to play here," the Portuguese coach explained. "But he's our player and he will be our player – no chance we give up on such a talented boy.
"But it is something we are thinking about, a loan until the end of the season. Yes or no. We are a bit afraid of injuries, of needs and needing him. We have Eric Bailly injured, we are not free of other injuries. So we are delaying the decision and we are going to delay it until the end of the transfer window.
"If we have to make a decision, we are going to make it at the end of the month. Probably at the end of the month, if we have no fresh injuries, if Eric Bailly is very close to being back or is already back, then probably it will be good for Axel to go on a loan and to be back for next season, because he is a player that we like very much."