Ten days ago Jack Ross took his Sunderland side to the Memorial Stadium and came away with three valuable league points as a 2-0 win ensured back-to-back wins for the Wearsiders. On Saturday the same scoreline secured our third win on the bounce before travelling back to Bristol for tonight’s cup semi-final.
However, it may be a very different side will that take on The Pirates tonight as Sunderland look to progress to our first ever EFL Trophy final and return to Wembley five years after Gus Poyet’s team took on Manchester City in the League Cup final.
Jack Ross has something of a selection dilemma ahead of the game. The likes of Robbin Ruiter, Alim Öztürk, Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka have been a fixture of the cup squads selected so far, so does Ross stick with such selections or, with Wembley looming, switch to a more recognised league-strength side?
The Gaffer said...
I would think it will be the strongest side I’ve put out in this competition so far. It is an important game for us.
What we’ve done throughout the competition is pick teams that are aimed at winning the games. We’ve been able to make changes at different times but those changes have taken different forms.
If you look at the Morecambe game in isolation, for example, that was a very young squad. The only reason we picked that team was because it would have taken a very strange set of circumstances for us to go out of the tournament that night.
In other games, players who have needed gametime have played, alongside a mixture of players who have been playing regularly in the league.
If you look at the last two knockout games against Newcastle and Man City, they were both against U21 sides and that affects the dynamics of your selection - it can be dictated to an extent by the opposition.
But as the cup competition progresses, other factors enter the equation: one, it’s the stage of the tournament; two, it’s the first time we have played a team in our league; and three, it’s an away game against a team in our league, whereas the only previous away game was against Morecambe when we were virtually through from the group stage.
There are two or three that we need to check on. Bryan [Oviedo] is back out on the grass with us now but he has not done anything for the last few weeks. Obviously we wouldn’t take any risks with anyone who has an issue that we felt might rule them out for the weekend or beyond that, but everyone who is fit and healthy will be considered.
The reality is that any cup competition should always be valued, especially when you get to the latter stages.
To have won as many games as we have done to get to this stage is great, but we want to make sure that we get to the final. The prize is that much closer and it’s not that often in your career when you get a chance to win things.
Robbin Ruiter has started every Checkatrade cup game in goal for Sunderland and has kept five clean sheets as they approach the semi-final stage. However, Ross could now switch to play his strongest side, starting with his choice of goalkeeper. Jon McLaughlin stands ready to take the gloves and see Sunderland into the final at Wembley.
Defensively Ross has played the likes of Tom Flanagan and Adam Matthews to prepare them for first team involvement. Whilst Flanagan seems the preferred choice for the league campaign, the arrival of Jimmy Dunne has pushed Jack Baldwin out of the picture and tonight may be an opportunity for the former Peterborough man to remind Ross of his qualities.
Adam Matthews, Denver Hume and possibly Bryan Oviedo will be pressing their claims for a full-back spot over regular starters Reece James and the re-invented Luke O’Nien. Is this the game to make wholesale changes? If there were changes in the full-back positions, it wouldn’t necessarily see a weakening of the team. Alim Öztürk and Glenn Loovens were considerations in earlier rounds, but Ross may opt to keep a strong centre. Bringing Baldwin back in alongside Flanagan could be an option and limit his defensive changes, especially as we are away from home.
In midfield the opportunity to rest Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole could be exactly the right course of action. The veteran midfielders are keeping Max Power and Dylan McGeouch out of the starting eleven currently. Opting to bring in McGeouch and Power alongside George Honeyman would be a sensible option and continue to use the competition to offer those out of the league eleven some valuable game time.
Further upfield Ross has used the competition to manage Duncan Watmore’s return to positive effect. Watmore could start once more this evening whilst Ross may see the opportunity to play Lynden Gooch, who has missed the last few games. Alternatively, Ross could retain Aiden McGeady or Lewis Morgan in the starting XI. The Celtic loanee has impressed in recent games and continuing his run in the side could be advantageous. Striker Kazaiah Sterling will miss out due to be cup-tied, whilst Chris Maguire sits this one out through injury.
Benji Kimpioka has impressed in this competition, but Charlie Wyke needs an injection of confidence and starting the former Bradford man tonight could provide the boost he needs. Support from playing Watmore, Gooch, or Morgan closer to the striker may provide an opportunity for Ross to assess how Wyke operates with a partner.
Rovers caretaker-manager Graham Coughlan has expressed how his players are desperate to be involved in the semi-final against Sunderland, even though the club’s priority remains survival in League One.
Speaking at his press conference yesterday, Coughlan commented how the match against the Black Cats is a real opportunity for the club to achieve something special this season:
At the end of our day our priority has been, and will always be, to stay in this division. Whatever goes on tomorrow night goes on, we will deal with that and then concentrate on our league campaign.
But it is a nice relief, it is a nice out, a nice change and a lovely challenge.
It helps when you are winning and we have only lost once in this competition, and that was Exeter away in the league format. It is nice to get away from the stresses and the permutations of the league, so it is nice in that sense.
But listen it is a game of football and the lads are getting around to my way of thinking and they want to win every football game they play.
It is a nice competition and it is one we can win.
As a football club we have two chances of getting to Wembley in the real world; one is the final of this, and one is the play-off final. There is no chance we can win the League Cup and there is no chance we can win the FA Cup, so this is an opportunity and a chance and I have been banging onto the players since I took over about taking their opportunities and chances.
Tomorrow night is just that.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
A number of fans will be making the trip once more, but for those without a ticket the game will be shown live on Sky Sports this evening.
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.