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Match Preview: Two promotion rivals facing off tonight - can Sunderland show they mean business?

Last season this was a Championship fixture and, with both clubs seeking an immediate return, it is billed as a huge game in the race for promotion. Can Sunderland return to winning ways and create some breathing space, or will our rivals leapfrog us tonight?

Barnsley v Millwall - Sky Bet League One Play Off Final Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Jack Ross will lead his side out tonight knowing this is, quite simply, a huge game. In the past ten days Sunderland have twice had the opportunity to stake claim to top spot, and twice we’ve fallen short.

On November 17th, a day league-leaders Portsmouth were without a fixture, Sunderland trailed mid-table Wycombe Wanderers until the 84th minute. Securing a point maintained our unbeaten run but, crucially, we missed the opportunity to reach the League One summit.

A week later, the ten-men of Sunderland took to the field for the second half against the side one place above Wycombe. Walsall quickly scored and added a second before changes were made on the hour mark. With Chris Maguire’s introduction, Sunderland levelled within sixty seconds and grabbed a late, late equaliser in the 89th minute. Another point, but Portsmouth’s win at Scunthorpe opened a gap of four points on the Wearsiders.

We’re no longer able to take top spot but tonight’s game is an important one to secure three points for another purpose.

Barnsley, relegated from the Championship with ourselves in May, sit just two points and one place behind us in League One. Tonight’s game carries high stakes and a winner, whilst not yet ready to take all, will have a distinct advantage in the race for promotion.

Both Gooch & McGeady scored on Saturday, but Sunderland gained only one point
Image: Getty Images

The Gaffer says...

Saturday was about the players. What you saw was all about the players’ heart and desire not to lose the game. We didn’t want to draw the game, but the manner of the match is what it’s all about.

We wanted to go there and win; we do that every single week. But to remain on this run that we’ve been on with only one league defeat and to score in every league match is remarkable. These are stats the players should be proud of and we should be proud of as a club.

I said before, we’re not perfect, we’re still a work in progress and we’re striving to get better all the time, but the game tonight is one the players are looking forward to.

Every time we’ve been asked questions this season the players have responded and we’ll be asked questions again tonight because of the calibre of the opposition, but I have no doubt they’ll respond in the right way again.

[On Max Power being available:] I’m genuinely most pleased for Max. I’ve been so pleased with him since he came to the club, what he brings to us. I’m delighted for him. Thereafter, pleased from my own point of view to have him available.

I didn’t want him to be tarnished with it because it was unjust. I know he’s entirely determined to succeed here. I imagine that it will just give him that extra motivation to prove what he can bring to the club.

I’m grateful to those from the FA who have looked at it that they’ve seen it in the same light.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One
Jack Ross was pleased to have Max Power’s red card overturned yesterday
Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Head-to-Head...

Sunderland have met Barnsley 27 times down the years, with 26 of those encounters coming in league competition. Sunderland have the slight advantage, with 15 wins to Barnsley’s 10. This fixture has resulted in a draw only twice. This has never been a top-flight fixture, but this is the first time a game has been contested between the two sides in the third tier of English football.

The majority of contests came during the ‘80s and ‘90s. There were only four seasons from 1985-1999 that these two sides didn’t meet - ‘88/89, ‘90/91, ‘96/97, and ‘97/98. Sunderland secured 12 victories whilst Barnsley triumphed on 8 occasions, with only one game drawn during this period.

Prior to last season, Sunderland had been in the same division as Barnsley only once in the twenty-first century, during the 2006/07 season. Roy Keane’s side beat The Tykes 2-0 both home and away as they secured the Division One title.

The most recent fixtures were, of course, last season, when Barnsley did the double over Sunderland. A 3-0 home win over Simon Grayson’s side last August was followed up with a 1-0 victory on New Year’s Day against Chris Coleman’s team at the Stadium of Light.

Barnsley did the double over Sunderland last season
Image: Barnsley FC

The state of play...

Sunderland’s ascent to the top of League One has stuttered a little in the past couple of weeks.

Successive draws against Wycombe Wanderers and Walsall have come with late goals to salvage a point. First, Josh Maja’s strike on 84 minutes at the Stadium of Light on November 17th to salvage a 1-1 draw, and then Lynden Gooch’s last minute strike against Walsall to recover from being 2-0 down. The draw against Wycombe saw Sunderland close the gap to leaders Portsmouth to two points, but without a game that day, the soutch coast side could have been overtaken with a win. Saturday’s late draw was not enough as Pompey opened a four point gap with a win at Scunthorpe.

Still, Sunderland hold a two-point lead over tonight’s opponents. Barnsley have won three and drawn one of their last four games and sit just a place behind The Lads. Tonight’s game couldn’t be tighter and mean more. A home win and Barnsley could well fall off the pace again, leaving the Stadium of Light five points adrift. Alternatively, an away win will see Sunderland fall out of the promotion places as the Yorkshire side overtake us.

With Luton and Peterborough also on 35 points, albeit having played a game more, the games against Bradford and AFC Wimbledon respectively offer the chasing teams the opportunity to capitalise on tonight’s result.

Whichever way you look at this fixture, the rewards could not be greater, nor a defeat deal a significant blow to the opposing side.

Sunderland last won at home against Southend United on October 27th, when Chris Maguire scored a wonder-goal
Image: Getty Images

Team News...

Jack Ross has confirmed that Scottish midfielder Dylan McGeough will miss his second successive game with a muscular injury this evening. McGeough’s niggle comes on the back of Lee Cattermole’s absence due to a foot problem, meaning Sunderland are a little stretched in central midfield.

However, there was better news with Max Power winning his appeal against Saturday’s red card, meaning Ross can select from the same squad that was available to him at the weekend and retain the Max Power-George Honeyman defensive midfield partnership tonight.

The defence will remain as they were on Saturday, with Jon McLaughlin and a back four of Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James now having played together since the Bradford game in early October. Similarly, Sunderland are likely to remain unchanged up front, with eleven goal striker Josh Maja leading the line and seeking to add to his already impressive tally.

Whilst Saturday’s goalscorers Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch should both start tonight, the third place in the attacking-midfield could be up for grabs. Any of the three who featured in the role on Saturday could start tonight.

Could Ross name an unchanged side and retain Oviedo, or will he opt to play O’Nien slightly ahead of Power and Honeyman and combat a powerful Barnsley midfield? Alternatively, he could revert to the usual attacking trio of Gooch, McGeady and Maguire.

Finally, Academy goalkeeper Anthony Patterson was named among the substitutes on Saturday due to Robbin Ruiter picking up an injury, and the 18-year-old is likely to be on the bench again tonight.

Max Power’s red card was overturned and is available for the big game tonight.
Image: Getty Images

The Opposition...

Barnsley are unbeaten in their last seven games, across all competitions, and arrive at the Stadium of Light in good spirits this evening. Four clean sheets in those seven games has bred confidence and the Yorkshire side have climbed to third in the table. A 1-1 draw on Saturday against rivals Doncaster meant Barnsley failed to close the gap on Sunderland, but they arrive on Wearside knowing victory will see them to leap frog the home side.

However, the Tykes suffered a blow yesterday when it was confirmed that Welsh international winger Ryan Hedges won’t feature again until Christmas after sustaining a broken toe at the weekend.

Assistant manager Andreas Winkler still insists Barnsley remain ready for tonight’s challenge, believing their preparations can help them earn a big result.

This is probably the toughest few weeks of the season. Lots of games and we are playing some teams who are right up there with us. Is this the biggest match? I don’t know.

Maybe our players perform and focus better in the bigger matches. They’ll need to do so again against Sunderland. It’s a massive stadium and we are looking forward to the challenge.

We have seen Sunderland, we’ve been to the Stadium of Light. We feel like we have prepared well. I know how much the players are looking forward to it.

Barnsley assistant manager Andreas Winkler
Image: Barnsley FC

Where Can I Catch The Game?

Tickets are still available for the game and the ticket office is open from 9am. Adult tickets are priced from £18 and under 16s £7.50.

Cash turnstiles will also be open from 6.30pm. Numbers 33-35 will be open in the north east corner, priced at £18 and numbers 37-39 in the east stand priced at £20. Concession priced tickets must be purchased from the ticket office, which is open until kick off.

The game is also available via the Match Pass stream, for both UK and International fans. An audio package is also available for tonight’s game. Full details can be found on SAFC.com.

We’ll also be providing live commentary via our Twitter page and, after the game, there’ll be a match report and player ratings article on the site - so keep an eye out for that.