Bruce is known to have become concerned with Malbranque's recent performances and, tellingly, failed to include him in the squad that drew at home to Fulham last Sunday a result that extended the Wearsiders winless run to 14 league games.
With Jordan Henderson and David Meyler sidelined Sunderland were short of midfield cover for the visit of the Cottagers but the manager preferred to name four defenders among his substitutes rather than include Malbranque in his squad.
After the game Bruce revealed that Malbranque was not carrying an injury but his omission was a selection decision.
The Belgium-born player is undoubtedly a talented performer but his repeated failure to complete 90 minutes has led Bruce to question his mental and physical toughness.
He has been substituted in each of his last 12 Premier League appearances culminating in his withdrawal midway through last month's 1-1 draw at Portsmouth. At the time Bruce dismissed questions about Malbranque's fitness claiming the player had been suffering from a stitch.
The door has not been closed on Malbranque making a return to the Black Cats and help their bid to steer clear of the bottom three but his days at the Stadium of Light appear to be numbered. The 30- year-old has over two years left to run on his current deal but unless there is a major turnaround in his form he appears destined to be among the players jettisoned by Bruce at the end of the season.
In the meantime, Northern Ireland left-back George Mc- Cartney has welcomed his spell on international duty as a chance to get away from the gloom hanging over Sunderland.
McCartney is expected to earn his 33rd cap this evening against an Albania side skippered by his Sunderland team-mate Lorik Cana.
It is nice to meet up with a different set of lads. Hopefully when I go back the batteries will be recharged and I can look forward to the next game, said the full-back.
We started the season really well at Sunderland and were in the top ten. Things were moving along nicely. But we haven't won in a while and when that happens confidence is low and team spirit isn't what it should be. It is a bit of a rough time at the minute but I am sure we will come through this sticky patch and pull ourselves away from the relegation zone.