Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
The loss of Jon McLaughlin for the final quarter of an hour against Bristol Rovers was a concern for fans and management team alike. Thankfully, the back spasm has not proved to be anything more than a niggle and the Scotland international has been declared fit to face Portsmouth today.
There is not much to seperate these two sides this season and having a quality goalkeeper, such as McLaughlin, between the sticks could be the difference today.
So far this season, the former Hearts stopper has proved a safe pair of hands and, whilst clean sheets have dried up of late, there is never a better time to keep a shut-out than this afternoon.
Defence: Matthews, Loovens, Baldwin, Oviedo
Jack Ross will have two big decisions to make today. One will come in the make-up of Sunderland’s midfield, and the other is likely to be who plays at left-back.
Reece James is back in contention after missing the 2-1 win over Rovers, having sustained an injury during the warm-up. Over the past few weeks Bryan Oviedo has re-instated himself into the team with a number of impressive performances in a variety of positions. Today will be a big call whether to stick with the Costa Rican or recall Reece James.
Perhaps less of a choice exists at centre-half. Tom Flanagan is still struggling with a hip problem and Jack Ross has described his chances of playing today as “touch and go”. Should the former Burton Albion man miss out, Glenn Loovens is expected to continue in the heart of defence.
Given Portsmouth’s physicality and presence in the penalty area, having the experienced Dutchman may not be a bad thing. His early season partnership with Baldwin means the two are comfortable playing together and Ross will hope, when called upon, his central defenders are able to repel all Portsmouth throw at us this afternoon.
Defensive Midfield: Cattermole & Power
Last week’s inclusion of Lee Cattermole was something of a surprise and, in the first half, looked like a mistake from the gaffer. In the end, however, Cattermole played his part in the comeback and helped secure the three points. That 90-minute spell will have done Cattermole the world of good and, hopefully, will allow him to be ready for today’s challenge at Fratton Park.
Cattermole has been arguably our best central midfielder this season. Max Power has been a close second, so having both these players fit and raring to go is a huge boost today.
Portsmouth line up in similar fashion to Sunderland, with Tom Naylor and Ben Thompson sitting in front of the defence. Ahead of them Ronan Curtis tends to link the play, allowing Gareth Evans and Jamal Lowe to advance into forward positions to support Oliver Hawkins in attack.
It will be a huge test for the Sunderland midfield today. Cattermole and Power need to impose themselves and win the battle across the middle of the park.
Attacking Midfield: Honeyman, Gooch & McGeady
Chris Maguire started the win over Bristol Rovers on the bench, as George Honeyman was pushed further forward, and I suspect the same formation will be used today.
Like Sunderland, Portsmouth have a fluid attacking midfield and rely on their midfielders to score in the same way Ross has counted on Maguire, Gooch and McGeady to contribute to Sunderland’s tally this season. Being able to match the home side’s midfield will be a key area of battle and having the likes of Honeyman and Gooch tracking their runs will be critical.
George Honeyman, in particular, could be key to today’s result. Supporting both Cattermole and Power when the home side are in possession is within the captain’s capabilities. And turning defence into attack quickly, getting up the field to supporting the forwards, will equally be of value. Honeyman’s energy and drive could be crucial for that activity.
Gooch and McGeady will be asked to support Maja and cause problems for Portsmouth’s defence to deal with. The difference between the two sides today may come down to the quality each team possesses in the crucial final third. If Sunderland can turn over possession, having the likes of Gooch and McGeady running at the home defence could create a number of chances - ones we we simply have to take today.
Striker: Josh Maja
Josh Maja is one of the league’s top scorers and the most prolific in the league, with a goal every 113 minutes. Today, he simply needs to be in the right place at the right time and take any opportunity that comes his way. The battle for this game may be fought most fiercely just behind him, but, when the chances come, it may fall to the teenager to seperate these two promotion-chasing sides.
Today will be a huge test for the Sunderland side, but perhaps moreso for Maja. For the youngster to shine and prove he can play above this level, these are the games where he has to stand-out, both as a player but, more importantly, as a goal-scorer.