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Match Preview: Sunderland forced into making a raft of changes for this season’s biggest game

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Sunderland take on Barnsley tonight on the back of being kicked all over the place by Wycombe - will a raft of forced changes give our opponents the slight advantage going into this one?

Barnsley v Walsall - Sky Bet League One Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Jack Ross has spoken clearly about the importance of tonight’s game.

Firstly, it’s an immediate chance to correct some of the performances seen on Saturday. Sunderland were not at their best against a resolute Wycombe side, who had a game-plan and clearly stuck to it.

Secondly, Ross is hoping the more open nature of tonight’s encounter - with two teams desperate to gain second spot and automatic promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt - will allow Sunderland to play to their potential and return to Wearside armed with three points.

Ross is also mindful of how the 4,500 travelling fans can influence the game, inspire his players and help them to achieve their stated aim of promotion.

Whilst tonight won’t secure or rule that out for either side, a decisive win either way would go a long way to securing the advantage for the victor over their rival.


The Gaffer says...

Every game at Sunderland is must-win and I’ve been like that since the day I took this job. Where the opposition are in the league doesn’t change our approach.

It will be a different game, they’ll play it and approach it in a different manner. A lot of times this season we’ve been at our best in those types of games and against good opposition team.

For three teams in one league to have such strong records is unusual and it’s what’s kept it so competitive at that end of the table.

The aim for Barnsley will be to try and give themselves a little bit of a cushion, whereas the incentive for us is to make sure that three-way fight continues, while not, of course, ruling out teams below us too.

We have less players available, but the players are in the same mood as they have been all season - positive and upbeat. The players just stick to the task at hand. They’re disappointed if they ever don’t play well, but if we win we don’t get too high with it.

[But] you get to this stage of the season and you can’t underestimate how much each win can mean.

Psychologically I’ve never felt the players have ever been different. I think they’ve always remained balanced but it’s more about the significance of winning games at this stage - regardless of opposition it’s about winning points that will bring us closer to reaching the target that we want to bring us success. And it’s significant because if you don’t get the result, the number of games to catch up on that total becomes less.

[The away support has] played a huge part. If you take Saturday as an example, we did well to get back into the game from that position and it helps when you have so many people in the ground willing you on to get something from the game.

It comes with a responsibility to try and give those that travel something to go home happy about, but I think we’ve enjoyed it this season. The players have by and large responded to it in a terrific manner and they will just add to a brilliant occasion tomorrow.

It always brings out the best in the home fans as well because they always respond to the numbers we travel in, but for me I’ve sensed among everyone an excitement about tomorrow.

It’s two really good teams who’ve enjoyed good seasons to date and they go in knowing, while nothing will be determined by tomorrow night’s result, a positive result for either takes them a step closer to what they want to achieve.

Jack Ross has spoken of how the travelling support help his side in their quest for promotion
Image: Getty Images

The state of play...

Following Saturday’s draw at Wycombe, Sunderland remain third in League One. The Wearsiders are four points behind tonight’s opponents Barnsley with a game in hand as the race for automatic promotion hots up.

Daniel Stendel’s men maintained their push for automatic promotion and extended their unbeaten run to 16 games with a 2-0 win over Accrington Stanley at Oakwell on Saturday. Should Barnsley avoid defeat this evening they will extend their unbeaten run on home soil to a full calendar year.

The earlier fixture between these two sides was played out at the Stadium of Light in November where an impressive performance saw the home side pick up three points with a convincing 4-2 win. Jack Ross will be hoping for more of the same this evening.

Kieffer Moore, who scored the away side’s two goals in that game, is out for the season but Barnsley do not have any fresh injury concerns, whilst Sunderland must shuffle their pack after Saturday’s draw at Wycombe.

Ross has confirmed Tom Flanagan, George Honeyman and Reece James will join Chris Maguire in the treatment room, whilst scans are due on Duncan Watmore prior to the trip to Barnsley.

Duncan Watmore scored the equaliser on Saturday but then picked up an ankle injury. The forward will be assessed ahead of tonight’s game.
Image: Getty Images

Team News...

Jack Ross has some key decisions to make in the wake of the Wycombe game on Saturday.

Reece James failed to make it beyond half-time due to injury, whilst Tom Flanagan was forced off late in the game with a head injury. That left Sunderland with 10-men as all our substitutions had been made. George Honeyman was then sent off, despite being substituted, for his involvement in the melee that followed shortly after Duncan Watmore’s equalising goal. And Watmore himself was injured late on following a heavy challenge by Marcus Bean that led to his dismissal.

Speaking at his press conference yesterday, Ross confirmed that Flanagan and Honeyman will be missing tonight, as both suffered concussion on Saturday. Ross also confirmed James was withdrawn due to a groin injury and is doubtful for the match at Oakwell. Watmore was due to have a scan yesterday afternoon to assess his ankle, whilst Chris Maguire remains out with a leg fracture.

With Flanagan missing out then Jack Baldwin is likely to step back into the first team. Partnering Jimmy Dunne in central defence, the pairing needs to be solid whilst arguably the whole team need to defend better than they did at Wycombe.

The full back roles are areas of further interest. James was replaced by Adam Matthews on Saturday, so does Ross retain Matthews at left back or bring in Bryan Oviedo, who returned to training last week? Or maybe Ross could play both. With George Honeyman missing, is this an opportunity to move Luke O’Nien to his more natural midfield role to provide that box-to-box energy, thus bringing Matthews in at right-back? Denver Hume offers a further option at left back, should Oviedo lack match fitness.

If Ross opts to retain O’Nien at full-back, who replaces Honeyman? Could Lewis Morgan occupy a more central role? Perhaps Lynden Gooch or Max Power may be asked to adapt their games to fill Hoenyman’s shoes.

The replacement will need to work hard, connecting midfield with attack and be ready to drop into a midfield three, like the Sunderland captain has this season. Jack Ross must decide who’s game best fits that role.

Up front Will Grigg had a quiet afternoon on Saturday, but away at promotion-chasing Barnsley it is hoped the game will be more open and allow Sunderland to get the best from their striker. If Sunderland are to win tonight and overtake their opponents in the race for automatic promotion, much will depend on Grigg getting on the end of chances.

Where will Jack Ross ask Luke O’Nien to play this evening?
Image: Getty Images

The view from the Home dressing room...

The Reds continued their quest for automatic promotion with a 2-0 home win at the weekend. Manager Daniel Stendel has reported no fresh selection concerns, but is still without Kieffer Moore, Cameron McGeehan and Jacob Brown.

Barnsley’s assistant manager, Dale Tonge, was talking to the Yorkshire press ahead of tonight’s game:

I don’t know if it’s must-win for them. But it is for us. Every game is. That’s how we approach every game. We are going to look forward to it as I am sure Sunderland are.

It’s a big game in terms of positioning so we are going to take it head on like we do every game and enjoy it.

The boys are well aware of the situation, it is not something that is new to them, it is just being about calm in the situation and producing what is needed.

Sunderland are a massive club, fantastic support base. Most people have watched the documentary: you can see how big the club is, the support they get. They will bring a big crowd so that will add to the atmosphere and add to the game.

They’ve got players who don’t belong at this level. We are well aware of what a challenge we have in front of us.

It has got a really good feeling about it. We are ready for this game.

We aren’t going to pretend. This is a big game. We can increase the gap and they can close the gap, but I don’t think this game is the be all and end all for the promotion race.

We look at it as a must-win game for us: let’s win the game and let the rest take care of itself.

Barnsley extended their unbeaten run to 16 games at the weekend
Image: Barnsley FC

Where Can I Catch The Game?

Sunderland take another sell-out following, estimated at 4,500 fans, to Oakwell tonight.

For those unable to attend, audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 7pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.

The game is also available via the Match Pass stream. 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.