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Starting XI: FIVE CHANGES! Is this the Sunderland side for today’s game against Bristol Rovers?

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Sunderland must win today against struggling Bristol Rovers if they are to keep up the pressure on Portsmouth. Is this the starting eleven that Jack Ross will pick for this afternoon’s game? We’re predicting five changes.

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Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin

Jack Ross is getting very close to having a full squad to choose from. There are one or two still absent and a few niggles to contend with, but, by and large, most players will be available for the Christmas schedule.

Today’s game is the last one where the Lads will have a week’s rest before the next fixture until the middle of January. We have seven games that will be Saturday-midweek-Saturday between December 22nd and January 12th, so Jack Ross will be hoping to utilise his squad to the maximum in the search of as many points as possible.

One player who Ross will call on in the majority of those games is Jon McLaughlin. The Scottish goalkeeper will have been disappointed that Sunderland went out of the FA Cup in midweek, but will be one of those players determined to bounce back today.

Jon McLaughlin will be hoping to keep Bristol Rovers at bay today
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Defence: Matthews, Flanagan, Baldwin, James

It was something of a surprise that Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin lined up as the central pairing on Tuesday evening. Not in the sense that either has been playing poorly recently, but more as it was an opportunity for Glenn Loovens or Alim Öztürk to get some much-needed game-time. Having had a rest in midweek, I would have expected the senior centre-halves to be returned to the starting line-up today. I don’t, therefore, expect any changes in the central defence for today’s visit of Bristol Rovers.

At full-back, though, I think Ross will recall both Adam Matthews and Reece James this afternoon. Matthews picked up a knock during the abandoned game at Accrington and so sat out the cup-tie in midweek. However, Jack Ross confirmed the injury was not too bad and Matthews should be available today.

At left-back, Sunderland have options. Bryan Oviedo played in midweek and has been a key part of recent matchday squads. However, when it comes to the league, the left-back spot has firmly become the property of Reece James. The former Manchester United defender has quietly became a central figure under Jack Ross.

Ross has hinted that any transfer dealings in January may be limited but defence is one area he will consider. Given that both Matthews and James are out of contract in the summer and Loovens and Öztürk seem to be somewhat out of favour, Ross may decide to address concerns in this area.

Up until then at least, these four in particular will seek to progress Sunderland’s promotion challenge by providing a sound defensive base.

Reece James has made the left-back slot his own
Image: Getty Images

Defensive Midfield: Power & Honeyman

Sunderland’s options in midfield are perhaps the strongest within Ross’ squad. Dylan McGeough, Lee Cattermole, Max Power, Bali Mumba, George Honeyman and Luke O’Nien can all operate within the central positions - an embarrassment of riches, all things considered.

In recent weeks, Power and Honeyman have proved very effective at the base of the midfield. For some, though, Honeyman’s best position remains further up-field. Yet the Sunderland captain looked equally at ease alongside McGeough, prior to Power’s return.

Prior to his injury, Lee Cattermole was arguably the pick of the defensive midfielders, however. He made his return as a 58th minute substitute for McGeough on Tuesday. Could either player now force their way into the league side today? Perhaps much will depend on the fitness of Lynden Gooch and Aiden McGeady and whether Ross will push Honeyman forward, allowing either Cattermole or McGeough to start this afternoon.

I’ll argue that both Gooch and McGeady will be available and Ross will keep faith with the Power-Honeyman combination against Rovers.

George Honeyman: Captain Fantastic
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Attacking Midfield: Maguire, Gooch & McGeady

Sunderland’s more attacking options are becoming obvious choices and regular picks for the league campaign. Lynden Gooch, Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady have been consistently good for Sunderland this season and have provided creativity and goals playing just off the main striker.

With Duncan Watmore’s return to the side and Jerome Sinclair’s ability to fill one of these roles, Ross continues to have options. But easing Watmore back into competitive action without throwing him in the deep end has been the strategy of the management team. This has worked effectively and there is certainly no rush, given the form of this trio.

Today, I’d expect to see Watmore introduced from the bench and get some league action under his belt, particularly at home. But, for me, Gooch, McGeady and Maguire will all start today and take the game to our visitors.

Gooch and McGeady could both return, after missing the FA Cup-tie in midweek
Image: Getty Images

Striker: Josh Maja

Jerome Sinclair is being given plenty of opportunities, but his ability to take those chances as an out-and-out striker seem to be passing him by. Whilst he has strengths in running the channels and physically competing with centre-halves, the lack of goals is counting against him.

Sinclair is not the first player to struggle in the role. Jozy Altidore arrived as a big signing with a strong reputation in European football, and failed to make it as a goal-scoring striker on Wearside. Last season Ashley Fletcher made the short journey from Middlesbrough for a loan spell at the Stadium of Light and was similarly flawed in front of goal.

Perhaps made all the more difficult for the on-loan Watford striker is the fact that Sunderland have a teenager making his breakthrough season under Jack Ross and has been hitting the net with regularity.

Josh Maja now has 12 goals in all competitions and is firing Sunderland towards promotion. With Charlie Wyke due to return from injury soon, Maja knows he will need to continue to deliver in front of goal to retain his place.

Given that Sinclair has proved so ineffective, in this regard, I see no reason why Maja won’t start today. The youngster will be looking to add to his impressive tally against a side that has conceded 11 goals in their last four league games.

Josh Maja will be ready to add to his 12-goal haul this afternoon
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