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Starting XI: UNCHANGED? Bring in O’Nien? Is this Sunderland’s team for today’s game at Walsall?

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As Sunderland return to the Bescot Stadium for an FA Cup-tie, only a week after an eventful league encounter, will Jack Ross keep faith with the team that swept Barnsley aside in midweek or make the odd change?

Image: Getty Images

Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin

Despite conceding five times in three games, little blame can be laid the the feet of Jon McLaughlin. Circumstances beyond his immediate control and simply good finishing have stopped the run of clean sheets in recent games.

However, the only stat that really counts is points gained or, in today’s case, progression in the competition. McLaughlin, like his manager Jack Ross, will always prefer to come off the field with a clean sheet, but as long as the team have progressed in their aim of promotion in the league or progression in the cup the goalkeeper will be happy.

Victory today will see Sunderland reach the third round - the entry level in recent years for this club. The third round will have been the bare minimum requirement and McLaughlin will be determined to reach that milestone come 5pm today.

Jon McLaughlin will be hoping to keep Walsall at bay today
Image: Getty Images

Defence: Matthews, Flanagan, Baldwin, James

As Sunderland approach the January transfer window the club management will be making transfer plans to strengthen the squad. Operating on multiple fronts, the depth of the squad is crucial to Jack Ross’ plans of cup and league progression.

The current back four have certainly laid a claim that any recruits should be seen as supporting the defence rather than replacing any of them. A solid partnership between Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin has contributed to Sunderland’s excellent unbeaten run, whilst both Adam Matthews and Reece James have shown their quality in recent weeks.

Last weekend proved a tough job for the ten-men of Sunderland; none more so than the defenders. Under pressure for much of the game, the quartet were key figures in helping Sunderland recover from 2-0 down and give the forward players the platform to rescue a point.

Today will be no different, as Walsall will be keen to progress in the cup and will look to exploit any weaknesses identified during the league encounter. Sunderland’s defence will need to be on their game, both individually and collectively, if we are to reach the third round.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Jack Baldwin will be looking to secure Sunderland’s passage into the third round today with a strong defensive display
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Defensive Midfield: Power & Honeyman

George Honeyman has performed with exceptional control and ability in recent weeks.

Dropping deeper caused many Sunderland fans to question if the skipper could perform in the role, but he has let no-one down. In fact, Honeyman continues to be a man-of-the-match contender and impress in a more defensive-minded role.

Alongside him will be Max Power. Having has his red card rightly rescinded, this will be a quick return to the Bescot for him and his teammates. Sure to receive a hostile reception from the crowd, Power will be looking to control his style of play and remain effective in dominating the midfield. The opposition is sure to target the former Wigan man but, after admitting that he played within himself on Tuesday against Barnsley, Power will be prepared for what is to come.

Such is his ability, Ross will have nothing but utmost confidence in the midfielder to exact his own form of revenge and carry Sunderland into the hat for the next round.

Max Power was wrongly sent off last week and will have a point to prove today
Image: Sunderland Echo

Attacking Midfield: Maguire, Gooch & McGeady

What is there to say about Sunderland’s attacking midfield trio? Chris Maguire has now won successive goal-of-the-month awards, whilst Aiden McGeady has contributed four goals and two assists in his last five games. Lynden Gooch has also been prolific of late, scoring three times in his last four appearances.

With a penchant for late goals, the American rescued a point for Sunderland last weekend at The Bescott before adding his sixth of the season against Barnsley in midweek.

The form and application of these key players are keeping the likes of Jerome Sinclair and Luke O’Nien on the bench.

With Elliot Embleton’s impressive loan spell at Grimsby due to end after Christmas and Duncan Watmore inching towards a competition return - perhaps even this coming week in the Checkatrade Trophy - Jack Ross has an embarrasment of riches and healthy competition for places in the offensive positions. The recent emergence of rising Academy star Jake Hackett among the first team squad adds a further dimension.

Aiden McGeady & Lynden Gooch have been prolific in recent weeks
Image: Getty Images

Striker: Josh Maja

Josh Maja recorded his bagged his twelfth goal of the season against Barnsley on Tuesday evening. The teenager’s run of form has been highly impressive, given this is his inaugural season in the first team and has started only 18 games.

Maja now has three goals in his last four games, with last weekend’s game at Walsall the only one he hasn’t found the net in. Today, the youngster will be hoping to put that right and fire Sunderland into the third round.

By the time January comes round, and if Sunderland have progressed with a victory today, Charlie Wyke will be challenging Maja’s position come the third round.

Having already had a healthy rivalry with Jerome Sinclair, Maja will find the former Bradford man a serious contender for his position.

With a contract offer on the table, all Maja can do is continue to produce the goods as he has in the first half of the season and cement his role in the team.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One
Josh Maja remains Sunderland’s top scorer this season
Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images