The Black Cats take on Accrington Stanley, kick-off 7:45pm, in a crucial Sky Bet League One fixture as the race for promotion enters a defining month. Nine games in just over four weeks will determine whether Sunderland return to the Championship at the first time of asking in one of the two automatic places, or whether the quest for promotion extends into the play-offs.
Jack Ross knows results have been favourable recently. Barnsley have drawn three of their last four games and allowed Sunderland to mathematically grab second spot by a clear three points, should they win all their games in hand. That would also put greater pressure on Luton by reducing their lead to four points in the race for the title, whilst killing off any lingering hopes Portsmouth have of taking second spot.
The critical month starts at the Wham Stadium in a replay of the game abandoned in December, with the score at 1-1. Sunderland will be hoping their first half blitz of Portsmouth can be replicated this evening so that they can secure three points on this return visit.
The Gaffer says...
We’ve been back to normality. For me, preparations for Accrington began immediately after the game on Sunday. Our preparation for the game has been as thorough as it was for Sunday and we go there needing to win it because the importance of it is obviously paramount.
It was important for players to have Sunday evening with their families to allow that initial disappointment to dissipate naturally. They’ve been really good since.
The good thing for us is we’ve got a lot to focus on and regardless of how Sunday panned out, we recognised the importance of [this] evening and Saturday too.
The lads are pleased they have another game because that’s the best way to get the disappointment out of their system. Without being disrespectful, it’s clear and obvious the surrounding will be very different. Going from a crowd of just over 85,000 to probably just over 5,000 is a big difference.
But it’s a pitch all the same and we’ve got to go and win the game. The good thing is we’ve been there before this season so there’s no surprises for us and I think that’s helpful that we know our surroundings.
We focus and the aim is to win. We have to consider what a win will do for us in terms of points and our league position and ultimately that’s our overall aim this season - to go up.
We’ll need our whole squad throughout this period, there’s no doubt about that. Not just on the pitch, but off it too. We’ll need to drive each other forward.
We’ve always had a huge drive to go and achieve promotion this season and, if anything, the disappointment from Sunday has fuelled that even more.
The state of play...
Sunderland’s return to league action is their first game in League One for two-and-a-half weeks. In that time Barnsley have picked up four points from two games, whilst Luton have secured six points. The top two are now six and thirteen points ahead respectively, whilst Portsmouth beat Shrewbury Town in the week prior to the cup final and edged ahead of Sunderland into third spot by virtue of a single point.
Sunderland now have a mammoth nine games in just over four weeks, starting at Accrington Stanley this evening. Clawing back the three games in hand the Wearsiders hold over the top two is crucial for the promotion hopes of Jack Ross and his team. Only maximum points from those games will give Sunderland the advantage in the race for automatic promotion.
Similarly, Accrington Stanley hold a number of games in hand over their rivals towards the bottom of the league. Accrington could move themselves back up to 12th, and into midtable, if they were to win those games. Lose, and their current two-point cushion could disappear as four of the bottom five all sit on 42 points.
Tonight is a crucial game for both sides, but it will likely be Ross’ Sunderland that will rue anything other than three points.
Jack Ross has confirmed that Adam Matthews will be missing tonight with a re-occurrence of his hamstring injury. Also absent will be Duncan Watmore and Chris Maguire, whilst Donald Love is still working his way back to full fitness. Ross has confirmed there are doubts over one or two more and further assessments will be made this morning.
There are likely to be some disappointed players who didn’t make the starting XI on Sunday who will chomping at the bit to replace any that don’t make this evening’s squad. Players such as Denver Hume, Max Power and Charlie Wyke - who all finished the game for Sunderland - will be keen to make tonight’s team. Concerns over Reece James and Will Grigg, coupled with George Honeyman’s league suspension, means this trio has a very good chance of getting the nod at the Wham Stadium.
Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan played out the full 120 minutes, and Jimmy Dunne stands by to come back in for one of the centre halves should Ross consider a further change can be accommodated in defence. Similarly, veteran midfielders Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter may not make it as a pair tonight. Dylan McGeouch is ready to take the role of midfield general in such an event.
In attack, cup hero Aiden McGeady is another serious doubt which could prompt Ross into switching Lewis Morgan to the left wing. That would allow cup substitute Lynden Gooch to start from the right. Two driving widemen could look to bring the best out of Wyke with balls into the box, but they equally need to get close to the striker when the play advances down the opposite flank. Too often Sunderland have left the lone striker exposed and Ross needs to find a way of supporting his most advanced player.
On-loan striker Kazaiah Sterling, youngsters Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka, and fringe players such as Alim Öztürk may appear on the bench this evening.
The view from the Home dressing room...
Winger Sean McConville feels there is no better side for Accrington Stanley to play tonight as Sunderland make the trip to the Wham Stadium. John Coleman’s side have two games in hand on many teams around them and need a win to move away from the bottom four tonight.
The Reds have lost two on the trot and face the Black Cats for the third time this season – the first game was abandoned with the score at 1-1 on 79 minutes in December at the Wham Stadium and the two side’s drew 2-2 at the Stadium of Light in February.
Conville speaks for the squad when he says they are relishing the game tonight:
We have been talking about it; it’s a massive game. We have got to turn around the situation we are in.
We couldn’t have asked for a better game really, a massive team which will bring a massive crowd and we can’t use any excuses that we can’t get up for the game. We have got to be on the front foot from the off and this should suit us.
They are coming off a disappointing result on Sunday in the Checkatrade Trophy final and the last place they would probably want to come to is Accrington so we have got to try and make this work in our favour.
We have played them twice, once abandoned, and I think we were the better side on both occasions. We can take heart from these performances against them.
Personally, I am into double figures on goals this season and I want to beat my tally from last season. I got 13 last season so I need to add another few goals.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Tickets for Sunderland’s trip to the Wham Stadium will be available to purchase at the ground this evening. A number are available at the away ticket booth from 6pm for both seating or standing priced at £20 for adults, £15 for over-65s and students, £10 for under-18s and £5 for under-12s.
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.