We seem to be in an annoying habit of playing teams when they’re in a bit of a good run of form lately. AFC Wimbledon had just come off the back of an FA Cup win last weekend and the recent fixtures away to Charlton and Scunthorpe saw us play two sides who had been comfortably racking up home wins.
It’s a similar story for our trip to Oxford on Saturday. The U’s are unbeaten in four, which includes tough games against Portsmouth, Barnsley and Fleetwood, which is quite the turn around from their early season form.
Oxford are still firmly in danger of relegation but this won’t be a walkover for Jack Ross and the lads, especially if the home side play with the same intensity we saw at the Stadium of Light. You can also guarantee that Jerome Sinclair will score.
To find out the mood amongst the Oxford support, and just how tricky this game could be, we spoke to James Richards of D3D4.
RR: In your last four games you’ve had some good results against the likes of Portsmouth and Barnsley. Is that giving you confidence for not just Saturday’s game but for your chances in the relegation battle?
JR: Of course! When you take points from the top sides you have to feel there is enough about the team to avoid relegation though that said League One is like that.
We have really struggled to score goals this season with most strikes coming from our midfielders. There was, like at Sunderland, a desperation to get a striker in on deadline day but fans were quite underwhelmed when it turned out to be Jerome Sinclair.
Perhaps this is unfair on the player but we were linked to some pretty big names so to end up with a striker who has spent much of the season injured just seems to confirm that we are not competitive in the market.
RR: What seems curious to me with Oxford is that since October, you’ve only really had one little run of defeats and it seems to be drawing games that is keeping you down the bottom. Is that fair or have those draws been hard fought? If not, what’s stopping the team from seeing out these games and getting all three points?
JR: The recent game against Burton, where we were against 10 men for 79 minutes, just sums up our problems.
We don’t create enough good quality scoring chances and without a striker who can regularly put the ball away we could continue to struggle.
Gavin Whyte and James Henry are probably our biggest threats but a few of those draws were rescued late in the day like at Peterborough and Doncaster.
Our defence has also been awful in games where we don’t utilise John Mousinho as an anchor man. When he has been absent we have taken some hidings like at Plymouth and then Bury in the EFL Trophy.
RR: Looking at it from the outside, I guess it would have been easy for the board to dismiss Karl Robinson for the terrible start to the campaign. Are you glad they stuck by him though, given that your form has improved?
JR: I am not necessarily Karl Robinson’s biggest fan but sacking managers and creating more instability doesn’t often produce results.
I think sticking by him is probably the right choice for now but we will only really know that come the end of the season.
RR: You mentioned top scorer James Henry, along with Gavin Whyte, earlier. They seem to be the obvious ones but who is the main danger man for Oxford as we head into this game? Is it all about Henry and Whyte or is there anyone else we should be keeping an eye on?
JR: Gavin Whyte is an excellent winger, happy to run with the ball and completed more successful take-ons than any Oxford player by some margin. Jordan Graham, on loan from Wolves, is the other player who has impressed of late and he is getting better each game.
Marcus Browne is also good when he is focused and it will be interesting to see how the pace of Jerome Sinclair plays out across the rest of the season. He looked dangerous against Burton but his finishing was a bit wayward so hopefully that will improve.
At least we can now have a striker on the bench, something we haven’t been able to do for a while.
RR: I’m sure Chris Maguire will be looking forward to making a return to Oxford but there’s a good chance he won’t be in the team on Saturday. With that in mind, who in the Sunderland side will you be watching closely?
JR: Lynden Gooch and Aiden McGeady are the two players that stand out as dangermen. The latter has obviously played his entire career at a much higher level and Gooch is very dangerous as he proved in the reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light.
Luke O’Nien is also one I keep an eye on. He has been excellent since signing and could be one of your best signings in recent years.
RR: How do you expect Robinson to approach this game and what do you think his starting line up will be?
JR: I doubt there will be that many changes from the side that drew at Burton. We haven’t got the biggest of squads so often the team picks itself. You are probably looking at a 4-2-3-1 with:
Eastwood, Ruffels, Dickie, Nelson, Hanson, Mousinho, Brannagan, Henry, Whyte, Graham and Sinclair. Though, Mackie could return to the starting line up instead of the new man.
RR: Finally, can we have a score prediction please?
JR: We have done pretty well against the big boys this season at home so I am going to say 2-2.