Alarm bells are ringing loud and clear around Wearside following a week where Sunderland failed to establish themselves in the automatic promotion places.
The draw against Burton Albion and bizarre defeat to Coventry City has set nerves jangling as the Black Cats threw away their slender over Barnsley.
After that, the last thing Sunderland need is a confident Doncaster Rovers side arriving at the Stadium of Light on the back of four straight wins.
It could be a pivotal moment in the season and all in front of the Sky cameras.
State of play...
It is set to be a defining weekend at the summit of League One. Sunderland’s defeat to Coventry City allowed Barnsley to capitalise and return to the automatic promotion places with a win over Fleetwood Town. The Tykes could open up a five-point gap by the time Sunderland kick off if they manage to beat Shrewsbury Town at Oakwell.
The Black Cats could potentially start against Doncaster in fifth place if Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic win at Burton Albion and Oxford United respectively. Three points against Rovers would keep Sunderland in touch with Barnsley but they need to be wary of a resurgent Pompey.
The south coast side are on an excellent run of form, winning their five league matches and are currently level on points with Sunderland having played the same amount of games. A two-goal swing in the results of the two promotion chasers would see Kenny Jackett’s rise above the Wearsiders on goal difference.
Doncaster will also be desperate for points to cement their place in the final play-off spot. The Yorkshiremen are currently five points ahead of seventh-placed Peterborough United but Posh have a game in hand.
Jack Ross Says...
You have a frustration and Saturday took a lot of you emotionally in terms of the disappointment you feel as you have a lot of pride in what you do, and the run we were on, but if you’re involved in professional sport at an elite level you’re going to have bumps in the road along the way.
I’ve spoken a lot about consistency and my behaviours and actions don’t really change, it’s just making sure the players follow in that same way, and I think they have done this season.
We’re looking forward to Friday now - it’s great when you have that opportunity to get back out on to the pitch and try to put a defeat right.
We’ve had to deal with the pressure all season because of the cup runs, so we’ve been used to it in that sense.
Chris Maguire could return to the Sunderland squad on Friday after a two-month lay-off with a fractured fibula. Jack Ross confirmed that the former Scotland international has been back in full training during the week and could be in line to feature against Doncaster.
It could prove a timely boost for the Black Cats as there are major doubts over Aiden McGeady.
The winger came off the bench against Coventry but Ross conceded that he was “nowhere near fit” and it could mean McGeady sits out the upcoming clash. Ross added that Lynden Gooch, Adam Matthews and Reece James will be assessed after the trio returned to training on Wednesday.
Lee Cattermole is fit again and will probably return to the starting line-up while Dylan McGeouch is ruled out completely. There could also be surprise recalls for Alim Ozturk and Glenn Loovens as Ross is eager to avoid a repeat of the defensive lapses that cost Sunderland so dear against Coventry.
View from the opposition
Doncaster Rovers are making their first ever visit to Stadium of Light and manager Grant McCann is throwing a bit of shade ahead of their trip up north. McCann is hoping to frustrate the home side and ramp up the jitters among Sunderland supporters.
The Rovers boss told Doncaster Free Press:
The expectations up there are huge.
They’ll be expected to be in the top two, I’d have thought.
Definitely after the last two home games they’ve played – which they drew and lost – there will be expectations for them to beat us. Hopefully that plays into our hands.
The boys know what to expect up there [in terms of the size of the crowd].
It’ll show them this is what you can play in front of every week [by winning promotion to the Championship]. We’ll go up there and soak in the atmosphere.
Hopefully the fans will be getting on top of the Sunderland players in a bad way.
Doncaster have found form at the right time and are on a four-game winning run as they look to secure the final play-off place. However, they are quite patchy on the road with just one win in their last eight away from The Keepmoat.
Top goalscorer John Marquis has been passed fit while midfielder Ben Whiteman will also return to the squad after a month on the sidelines. Defender Tom Anderson will miss the trip to the Stadium of Light after suffering a calf injury during training.
Last Time We Met
Sunderland gave a real demonstration of their promotion credentials the last time these two sides met in late-October.
A fiercely contested game under the lights at the Keepmoat Stadium was settled by a Chris Maguire goal just after the break. The defensive resolve, and a fine performance from Jon McLaughlin, sent the 4,000 travelling supporters home.
Friday’s meeting will be just Doncaster’s third visit to Wearside with the last coming on New Year’s Day in 1988.
The sore post-New Year’s Eve heads were not helped by Steve Burke giving Rovers a third minute lead but Marco Gabbiadini and two strikes from Paul Lemon gave league leaders Sunderland a 3-1 victory.
The Black Cats would go on to win the league while Doncaster finished the season rock bottom.