Sunderland face a tough week as the hectic Christmas schedule concludes with a trip to Charlton Athletic. For both teams there have been wobbles during December, but Sunderland sit in third place having lost only twice all season, with Charlton four points behind in fifth spot.
For Jack Ross, today’s game and next Saturday’s visit of Luton Town offer a chance to close the gap on the top two places whilst creating a bit of breathing space to the chasing pack. Ross will be keen for his team to secure one of the automatic promotion spots as soon as possible. Having seen off Barnsley in convincing style just over a month ago, it is hoped a similar performance can achieve the same result today.
The Gaffer says...
It’s a hectic period, full stop. The number of fixtures we’ve already had to date in a short period of time and a big week ahead of us as well. It’s challenging, not just for us, obviously for all the other teams who face a similar fixture list at this time of year.
It cuts down on your preparation time with what you can do on the training pitch. But in the main, the results have still continued to be reasonably positive, which is obviously the important thing. To only lose two league games at this stage is a good record, to score in every league match and all the other things we’ve had that we’ve done quite well.
We know that if we replicate our first half in the second half, then we give ourselves a really good chance. No guarantees, but we give ourselves a good chance. But we’ve seen to date just how competitive it’s going to be for those top two places.
[Charlton] is as tough a test as you’ll get away from home, but we’re looking forward to it. I say it all the time about us responding to challenges we’ve had this season and we certainly have another one on Saturday because it will be a tough game.
Looking forward to the second half of the season, as a whole group we’ve learnt more about the league as it’s went on. As I said earlier, the focus is about replicating, by in large, what we’ve done. If we repeat that, if you look at a points per game total, we’re not going to be far away. If we get above that, then brilliant because that would almost guarantee success.
The state of play...
Sunderland sit in third place as we exit the busy Christmas schedule, having won three times and secured ten points from the fifteen available since the start of December. In the same period, Charlton have secured four victories whilst losing three times. Crucially, three of those victories have come at The Valley, whilst they managed a 2-1 win against leaders Portsmouth a month ago.
Lee Bowyer has made made home form a priority and gaining 19 points from the last 21 available makes for impressive reading. The Addicks have secured five straight wins at home and remain seven unbeaten in their last seven, securing four clean sheets in that period. During their last ten games at home, they have scored 20 goals and conceded just eight.
Sunderland have only had two away league games in the last five weeks, taking all three points from Blackpool on New Year’s Day. The other game was at Fratton Park, where Sunderland were arguably the better side until the sending off of Glenn Loovens swung the advantage to the home team.
Today promises to be a close contest, with both sides looking for points to carry them closer to their ambitions of promotion this season.
Jack Ross said the matchday selection at Blackpool was pretty much his entire available squad. Whilst that included Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka, the teenagers are both highly-rated and probably need to be included in the first team for their own development. Today, though, Ross will be able to add names of Bryan Oviedo and Duncan Watmore to his available options. Whether either will make the starting XI remains to be seen, but both are likely to be included in the eighteen.
Given that the defence has now kept two clean sheets in three games, Ross will be happy with the players at his disposal. Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin have provided a solid centre, whilst Luke O’Nien has performed very well in a new role as right-back. Both Reece James and the returning Oviedo have occupied the left-back spot during those shut-outs and either could play today.
In midfield, Lee Cattermole’s suspension will rule him out of today’s game and next Saturday’s visit of Luton Town. In his absence, it is likely that Dylan McGeouch will start alongside Max Power. George Honeyman remains injured and Bali Mumba is still being carefully managed in his first season as a professional footballer.
In attack, Lynden Gooch, armed with a new contract until 2020, seemed to recapture his form against Blackpool and will likely continue today alongside Aiden McGeady. The Irishman has been a shining light for Jack Ross this season and poses a goal-threat behind the main striker. Chris Maguire started New Year’s Day on the bench, but will he be recalled today? Or will Ross bring Duncan Watmore into the side, or even name an unchanged side, with Charlie Wyke partnering Josh Maja?
There are options, both from the start and off the bench that Ross can use to the fullest advantage. The Sunderland manager will have to balance the need to take advantage of the fact neither Portsmouth nor Luton play today and the opportunity to close the gap, with making sure we leave London with a positive result and not allow the chasing pack to close on us.
The view from the Home dressing room...
Lee Bowyer has a number of injury concerns going into this crucial clash, with the Charlton manager confirming the long-term absentees are still some way off returning to his squad. Midfielder Ben Reeves was substituted in Tuesday’s win at home to Walsall and Bowyer will wait on his fitness before finalising his team.
Defender Chris Solley returns from suspension and Bowyer will have new signing Jonny Williams available. The former Sunderland-loanee has signed a contract with the Addicks until the end of the season and goes straight into the Charlton squad.
The Addicks manager knows Sunderland pose a stern test for his team and will be backed by another sell-out away following:
It’s going to be tough but we’re a very good side at home, we have good support at home. The place is becoming a bit of a fortress. It’s a tough place to come and play with the combination of the fans and the players, it’s good. We definitely look forward to home games.
Sunderland will be a different test and we’ll respect them like we do every other team. If we do things right and we do what we’re good at then I think we’ve got a very good chance.
Sunderland take a lot away. They’ll bring a good crowd, but we have a good crowd as well, so it will be competition on who will be singing the loudest and it will be a competition on the pitch: who wins their individual battles and who wins the game at the end.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Around 3,000 tickets have been sold as Sunderland have once-more sold out an away fixture.
For those unable to attend, audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 2pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.
The game is also available via the Match Pass stream for domestic and international supporters. 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.