Barnsley are the New Year’s Day visitors in something of a relegation-clash at the Stadium of Light. The lower regions of the Championship have tightened up during the festive period, with just eleven points separating the bottom twelve sides.
The lowest half-dozen have just four between them with all in action this afternoon. The Black Cats host the Tykes in one of today's six-pointers with another taking place at third-bottom Bolton who face 19th-placed Hull City.
Whilst Sunderland v Barnsley fixtures were a regular feature in the 1990s, the two sides have only met three times since the turn of the millennium. Thumped 3-0 at Oakwell in August, the Black Cats have some score settling to do this afternoon.
This afternoon’s visiting manager, Paul Heckingbottom, was strongly linked with the vacancy at the Stadium of Light following Simon Grayson’s sacking before Chris Coleman agreed to take charge. The former Sunderland youth player still has a task on his hands to keep Barnsley in the Championship as the South Yorkshire club embark on a new era under new owners.
The Tykes took some stuffings in December and haven’t won since early November; but they have secured three draws in their last four as the Yorkshiremen tightened up somewhat.
Chris Coleman has an abundance of injury concerns ahead of this one. Lamine Kone and Didier Ndong are missing as are top-scorer Lewis Grabban and stalwart Lee Cattermole. Jonny Williams, Jack Rodwell and Duncan Watmore are the other longer term absentees.
Lynden Gooch is also set to miss out after establishing himself as a regular under Coleman. The American has featured in each of the last six but sits this one out with a hamstring problem. That enforced absence will mean the Black Cats boss will have to shuffle his midfield once again. Paddy McNair is expected to be back in the squad though, which is good news with Darron Gibson playing with a knock during the festive fixtures.
In defence, Tyias Browning played with a swollen foot last time out but is expected to start. Bryan Oviedo is available once more though Adam Matthews continues his encouraging spell at left wing-back. The Welshman is enjoying the best spell we’ve seen of him since his 2015 arrival and at right-back Donald Love put in arguably his most encouraging performance in a Sunderland shirt on Saturday. So the full-backs, and indeed the entire back six, may remain unchanged today.
Another big call for the Sunderland manager will be who to play up front. Coleman opted to hand Josh Maja his first senior start against Nottingham Forest on Saturday. The youngster operated as a lone striker flanked by Callum McMananan and Aiden McGeady.
James Vaughan came on during the latter stages of the win at the City Ground and with just two goals from 20-odd starts, the former Everton man will be keen to show what he can do with national newspaper reports suggesting Sunderland are willing to let him go in January.
Playing a 3-5-2 could be an option for Coleman to line up Maja alongside Vaughan here today. Sunderland switched things around into a 3-4-2-1 against Forest which enabled them to keep things tight and restrict their opponents to long passages of non-threatening possession.
In front of an expectant home crowd the Black Cats will be expected to be a little bit more expansive, which could pave the way for two strikers playing off each other up top. Something like this perhaps...
It might be a little too open that one, and Sunderland are light on striking options to have in reserve on the bench, but Chris Coleman has certainly been bold with team selections and substitutions since he arrived.
The Black Cats are relatively short odds at about 5/4 for the win with Barnsley unfancied, knocking on for 3/1 at some bookies. This one is the first in a run of three games against relegation rivals in January. With a game against Hull and a trip to Birmingham to come this month, things could be looking a whole load better by February, starting with a win today.
Predicted result: Only four Championship sides have conceded more than Barnsley away from home whilst Sunderland have the second leakiest defence on our own patch. 0-0 then, we haven’t had one at home since Burnley were the visitors in March.