Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Sunderland conclude what has, on paper, been a tough week of fixtures with a home game against high-flying Luton Town. The Hatters haven’t lost since Barnsley beat them 3-2 at Oakwell on October 13th and have secured 23 points from the last 27 available. Their run of seven straight wins came to an end with a 2-2 draw at Walsall on December 29th. A further draw at home to Barnsley on New Year’s Day means interim manager Mick Harford brings his side to the Stadium of Light one point and one place ahead of Sunderland.
There’s no doubt that this is a huge game for both clubs. Jack Ross will be seeking to play his strongest side, and that starts with recalling Jon McLaughlin to the side following his rest in midweek. The Scotland international will need to be at the top of his game today to keep Luton’s free-scoring team at bay, but it proves to be one of many intriguing battles today. If Sunderland’s number one can come out on top, it would give the team a huge boost in the quest for three vital points today.
Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Baldwin, James
Sunderland added Jimmy Dunne to the defensive ranks this week. An outstanding young talent, the Burnley loanee may have to settle for a place on the bench today as Ross will likely name an consistent back-line to maximise our chances of a win today.
In Luke O’Nien, Ross has unearthed perhaps the surprise of the season. The former Wycombe midfielder arrived with a strong reputation in the summer as Sunderland fought off today’s visitors for his signature. O’Nien was not signed as a right-back, but the youngster has taken to the role like a duck to water. His impressive performances and, importantly, goals from defence have enabled him to stake a strong claim to the position even when Adam Matthews returns to fitness.
On the left flank, fellow summer signing Reece James has made the position his own ahead of Bryan Oviedo. Much will be expected of him once more today as Sunderland seek to contain a side who scored twice in every game they played in December and 12 goals in three league games in November.
In the middle, Sunderland’s usual centre-half pairing of Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan will probably line up again today. How Jimmy Dunne affects their partnership, who may give way, or if Dunne adds another dimension to a three-at-the-back formation remains to be seen. But today, a solid performance from one of the league’s best partnerships is essential for the home side to leapfrog our visitors and regain second spot in the league table.
Midfield: Maguire, McGeouch, Power, McGeady
Sunderland are likely to line-up with a midfield four again today to continue to accommodate both Charlie Wyke and Josh Maja. Such is the fluid nature of Jack Ross’ formations, this is unlikely to remain a traditional four throughout the game, however.
Chris Maguire, armed with a strong midweek performance and a goal against Newcastle United in the Checkatrade Trophy, will be pushing to start today’s league game.
Such a high profile encounter is right up his street, and he may be preferred over young American Lynden Gooch. On the opposite wing, Irishman Aiden McGeady is one of the biggest names and talents in League One this season. The goal threat he provides as well his creativity have been key to Sunderland’s attacks this season.
In the middle, Dylan McGeouch and Max Power will be reunited following Bali Mumba’s appearance in midweek. The youngster did nothing wrong, but experience will be needed today. In the absence of the suspended Lee Cattermole, McGeouch and Power offer that in abundance.
The centre of the park will be a key battleground and Ross will hope his midfielders retain possession and provide creativity to ensure Sunderland can play off the front foot.
Attack: Josh Maja & Charlie Wyke
Josh Maja continues to keep a level head and prove himself to be one of the top goalscorers in League One. Jack Ross will hope the youngster will rise to the occasion today and lift the roof off the Stadium of Light with another goal this afternoon.
With his contract talks dominating events off the field, Maja simply needs to let his performances speak for itself on the pitch. All within the club, including Maja himself reportedly, are hoping he will sign a long-term deal in the coming days and end speculation. Ross will hope Maja can end Luton’s brief stay in the promotion places today.
Having Charlie Wyke available has been a huge boost for Sunderland in recent weeks.
Finding his feet after his injury was always going to take a few games, but with a goal in midweek under his belt, Wyke will be eager to get back on the pitch today. A follow-up strike can only serve to boost his confidence and endear him even further to the Sunderland faithful.
Ross will hope the fledgling relationship with Maja continues to develop and cement Sunderland’s position in the top two in the coming weeks.