EDDIE HOWE believes his Cherries squad is STRONGER than before lockdown.
The Bournemouth boss cannot wait to commence the club’s nine-game relegation battle, starting with Crystal Palace.
Howe will have several key players fit again when Roy Hodgson’s Eagles visit the Vitality Stadium next month.
David Brooks, Lloyd Kelly and Arnaut Danjuma are back on duty after long-term injuries, with fit-again Steve Cook and Chris Mepham also ready for action.
Howe, back at his desk plotting team tactics after the 12-week enforced break, said: “It’s really good getting back to work.
“The stuff we did with groups of five was very productive and very enjoyable — but I’m still delighted to get back to full- contact training.
“And I’m also delighted to be in the office preparing for the Premier League restart, planning has definitely started for Palace.
“We have got just over three weeks to get our preparations right — and that time is going to zip by.
“We must now make sure the players are fit, ready and able to cope with the demands that come afterwards.
“These nine games are so important to us and we need to get our best players on the pitch.”
But Howe believes he has a better armoury now to face his relegation rivals.
Wales midfielder Brooks, 22, enjoyed a magnificent debut season for the Cherries — scoring seven goals and also racking up five assists.
But he has yet to kick a ball this campaign after suffering an ankle injury in July.
Defender Kelly, a £13million signing from Bristol City last summer, is still to make his Premier League debut after picking up a thigh injury.
Dutchman Danjuma is also back in the frame after two foot injuries restricted the classy winger to just nine appearances since his summer move from Club Brugge.
FIVE PLAYERS BACK
Howe, 42, added: “Fingers crossed we will have a stronger squad than when we stopped playing.
“Yes, it will be a huge lift and boost for us when we get Brooks back — we’ve definitely missed him this season.
“He’s a very, very good player and did so well for us last season, building up such good relationships with all the others around him.
“So far he is looking good and I’m really happy with his progress, fingers crossed he will be OK for the first game.
“But it’s not just him. There are other players that could come back into contention.
“Arnaut Danjuma, Chris Mepham, Lloyd Kelly and Steve Cook are all back in training and they were not available when we stopped.
“I would like to think by the time we get back to playing, we will be stronger in defence and other areas as well.”
SORRY JOR, TIME’S UP
JORDON IBE will play no further part in Bournemouth’s bid to escape the drop — unless the Cherries need emergency cover.
The £15million flop was axed from the first-team squad after flouting lockdown rules by having a haircut.
Bournemouth will pay the 24-year-old’s £38,000-a-week wages until his contract expires on June 30 — but he will not be offered a new deal.
However, manager Eddie Howe insisted he did not regret signing the winger from Liverpool in July 2016.
Howe said: “Yes, he’s not training with us and he hasn’t for some time.
“His contract expires at the end of June and we are not going to offer him a new deal.
“I have no regrets signing him and I’m not going to sit here and criticise anybody.
“For Jordon there is the sadness from my side because it just didn’t quite happen for him on a consistent basis.
“I’ve said many times the talent is in the lad, he is outstanding physically and technically.
“But when a player doesn’t fulfil his potential under my management it doesn’t sit comfortably.”
The promising former England Under-21 star never got his ‘A’ game going on the South Coast and, worse still, embarrassed the club with his off-the-pitch antics.
He last started a first-team match in the League Cup against Burton in September and has been training with the Under-21s for months.
Ibe was banned for driving for 16 months and fined £7,500 in March for crashing his Bentley into a London coffee shop and driving off.
Only last week the player had to apologise to the club for flouting social distancing regulations by going for a haircut and he admitted he was going into rehab for his mental health.
Celtic and Middlesbrough have been linked with Ibe. Howe added: “I hope Jordon goes on and has the career his ability should allow him to have. And no one will be more pleased than me to see him deliver what I know he can.”
Howe’s training plans were rocked last week when keeper Aaron Ramsdale tested positive for coronavirus, as exclusively revealed by SunSport.
But Howe was happy to declare that his star striker Joshua King had settled back into training with no problem.
King, whose wife had just given birth to a baby girl, expressed fears back home in Norway that he was now worried about returning to the UK because he has asthma.
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Howe confessed: “Obviously Aaron’s positive test ramped up the anxiety within the squad.
“And the seriousness of this virus really brought it closer to home for us. But we had no players that didn’t want to train.
“There was no problem with Joshua. He joined in just fine.”