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Starting XI: THREE changes - Is this the Sunderland side that will take on Port Vale today?

As Sunderland take a break from league action to face Port Vale in the FA Cup today, will Jack Ross use this opportunity to rotate his squad, or will he look to build on the consistency of six wins in a row?

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin

With two cup-ties and a league game in the next seven days, Jack Ross will need to use the full range of his squad during these three matches.

The Sunderland manager will have been preparing for today’s cup-tie in the knowledge that Jon McLaughlin would miss the home game against Wycombe next Saturday due to his international call-up and perhaps had one eye on preparing Robbin Ruiter for his first league start by selecting him today.

However, the news that McLaughlin had been replaced in the national squad by Kilmarnock’s Jamie MacDonald on Friday morning will have had Ross considering his options.

Whilst Ruiter will now undoubtedly play on Tuesday, McLaughlin’s availability may have thrown the question of who starts today back into the air.

Jon McLaughlin has been withdrawn from the Scottish squad
Image: Getty Images

Defence: Matthews, Loovens, Baldwin, James

Glenn Loovens travelled with the squad to Plymouth last weekend and has trained well for the last few weeks. With Tom Flanagan missing against Wycombe on Saturday, the Dutchman will likely replace him at the Stadium of Light next weekend. Loovens will need a game or two to prepare for the league match, so it would be no surprise to see him line up against Port Vale today.

If Ross is looking toward the Wycombe game, it will be important for Loovens to rebuild the relationship with Baldwin prior to the league encounter. Today gives both players a chance to regain the understanding that carried Sunderland through the early days of the season.

Jack Ross has other options in defence, with Bryan Oviedo, Alim Öztürk and the returning Donald Love now available after injury. It is likely that each will get game time over the course of the week, but perhaps Ross will trust the bulk of the defence that has kept four consecutive clean sheets today in the hope of progressing to the second round.

Glenn Loovens has trained well in recent weeks
Image: Getty Images

Defensive Midfield: McGeough & Power

Max Power has served his four-game ban and is in contention for a start today.

The former Tranmere midfielder will be keen to return to the side and prove his worth ahead of Saturday’s league game. Having Power back in the side will certainly help Sunderland to control the game on what has been reported as the biggest pitch in League Two.

As Lee Cattermole sat out the Plymouth game with an on-going foot injury, Dylan McGeough produced arguably his best performance of the season. Whilst the opportunity to rotate the squad is clearly available, retaining McGeough in the midfield and building his confidence further would be a wise decision. The former Hibs man is starting to show the kind of form that had Sunderland fans excited by his signing, but there is more to come from the Scot and that will only come with game time.

Today will be a good test for both Power and McGeough to stamp their authority on the game and drive Sunderland into the next round.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Max Power comes into contention today
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Attacking Midfield: O’Nien, Gooch, Maguire

Luke O’Nien has started to find his feet in a Sunderland shirt in recent weeks. Having grabbed his first goal for the club against Shrewsbury, O’Nien won the penalty that brought an end to Plymouth’s resistance last Saturday.

Jack Ross commented how well he’s done in recent weeks and how his finishing had impressed the coaching staff. With three games in seven days, O’Nien may get his chance to start in the cup today.

Lynden Gooch may have been disappointed to miss out on an international call-up for USA, particularly for the game at Wembley against England. Yet the youngster has the chance to put that frustration to bed today as he takes he his place for the FA Cup.

Gooch has been one of the standout performers this season and will be keen to continue his development under Jack Ross. With contract talks on-going, it is hoped the American will commit his future to Wearside in the coming weeks.

Chris Maguire continues to be Sunderland’s talisman. With Jerome Sinclair, George Honeyman and Aiden McGeady performing well in recent weeks, there will be options for Ross, but I suspect Maguire continues to be the first name on the team sheet at present.

Could Luke O’Nien step off the bench to start today?
Image: Getty Images

Striker: Josh Maja

Sunderland’s top scorer returned to the starting line-up last week, looking sharper for his rest and chance to recover from his injury niggles. Perhaps it was a little unfortunate for Jerome Sinclair, who has performed well in recent games, but the relative strike-rates of the pair show Maja has been the more clinical this season.

Reports that contract negotiations are going well and the teenager is close to signing a new deal will no doubt provide a further boost to Maja’s confidence.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, Sunderland found a goalscorer in John Byrne that would fire the Black Cats all the way to Wembley. Can Maja be the cup hero in 2018 and begin where Byrne himself started, by scoring against Port Vale and securing Sunderland’s position in the next round of the FA Cup?

Can Josh Maja fire Sunderland to cup victory today?
Image: Getty Images