Sunderland are one game away from playing in a semi-final once again. Sitting rock-bottom of the Premier League, the priority has to be on Norwich at home on Saturday, but after pushing Chelsea right to the death less than two weeks ago, we have to go into tonight’s game knowing we can get a result.
The Special One himself has begun the mind games, saying "Gus is trying to avoid relegation so he has to play the kids from the academy in our game and keep the guys fresh for the next weekend". But with Sunderland needing wins anywhere to boost confidence ahead of the very-winnable games coming up in the next few months, Gus won’t change too much.
Vito Mannone will certainly keep his place in goal, with Westwood still on the sidelines and the young Pickford untried.
With five games coming up in just the two weeks until New Year, Poyet is unlikely to risk Wes Brown, with the injury-prone defender key to Sunderland’s survival bid. Cuellar remains injured (not that anyone noticed…) and Diakite has only been included in the match-day squad as an unused sub in the home victory against Manchester City, meaning error prone O’Shea, who has played every minute under Poyet so far, and Valentin Roberge, who started alongside O’Shea at Swansea, and replaced Giaccherini after Kevin Friend sent off Wes Brown at Stoke, are likely to start in the centre of defence. Bardsley and Dossena started the 4-3 defeat two weeks ago and could do the same tonight, with Celustka returning to the bench.
Poyet has adapted the set-up of his squad for each opponent so far, and started Chelsea with Ki in his usual role in front of the defence and Gardner and Colback in the middle of the park. Poyet has confirmed Colback will miss a second successive game through illness, while Lee Cattermole was one of the star performers against West Ham at the weekend. Forgotten man Cabral was promised another chance by Poyet earlier this week, and that could come in the cup rather than in a vital league game, although it will more than likely come against Carlisle in the FA Cup. Craig Gardner could start, alongside Ki and Cattermole, in order to rest Larsson for the Norwich game.
Further up-field, Adam Johnson, who has started three of the last four games on the bench, could return, while Giaccherini and Borini are rested. David Moberg Karlsson and Charis Mavrias are the most likely of Kevin Ball’s squad to feature, with Mavrias the more likely option, after Moberg Karlsson hasn’t featured since the MK Dons match.
Finally, boosted by his first goal for the club, Jozy Altidore will surely keep his place ahead of Fletcher who, like Brown, Poyet will want to wrap in cotton wool to keep fit for the survival battle. With Connor Wickham on fire out on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, the other options are playing Borini as the main man up front, his natural position after all; giving Ji Dong-Won another chance after featuring once since THAT ‘header’ against Palace; or throwing Mikael Mandron in for his first involvement this season.
Chelsea, who face Arsenal at the Emirates on Monday, have already promised to rotate their squad, with Cole, Lampard and Schwarzer expected to return to the starting eleven. It’s a huge game and, despite Norwich being the more important fixture, a semi-final appearance might just boost Sunderland enough to do what only West Brom has ever managed and pull of the great escape. Ha’way The Lads!
Reece Hanson - @RGHanson93