Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Jack Ross confirmed this week that Sunderland are almost at maximum strength for the first-leg play-off semi-final today, with only one or two exceptions.
None of that would concern the first name on the team sheet - Jon McLaughlin. The Sunderland boss is all too aware that the team’s success lies in keeping the opposition out as much as putting at least one goal in the opposition net.
Perhaps keeping a clean sheet is more important, given we’ve scored in all bar one league game this season. McLaughlin will certainly wish to get personal revenge over a Portsmouth side that won the Checkatrade trophy with one final penalty kick - and what better way to do so than take a healthy lead into the second-leg at Fratton Park.
Two or three nil would do nicely!
Defence: O’Nien, Öztürk, Dunne, Hume
With a clean bill of health Jack Ross has some big decisions today, not least in defence. The one player I feel almost certain in naming in the back four is Luke O’Nien.
The converted midfielder has been a willing and able full-back this season and Adam Matthews’ inclusion at Roots Hall last weekend looks more like an opportunity to rest O’Nien than any real threat to the former Wycombe man’s place. The Welshman looked rusty and faded as the game went on. Having been out for the last couple of months it was no surprise but it’d be a huge one if he were to start again today.
At left-back there is very little to separate Bryan Oviedo or Denver Hume. In fairness, had Reece James been fit neither may have played. As it is, Hume staked a claim against Southend but was it enough? The youngster acquitted himself well and played his part in a couple of attacks down the left. However he was beaten too easily as Southend scored from a corner.
That said, Oviedo was similarly caught out against Fleetwood and perhaps surrendered his place on the back of that performance. In the league game against Portsmouth last month Jamal Lowe made life very difficult for Oviedo. When attacking, the Costa Rican also lost possession in dangerous areas and put his team under pressure. Perhaps today will be Hume’s opportunity.
The most important selection may be in the centre-half pairing. Alim Öztürk was a shock inclusion against Doncaster and retained his place for the final four games of the normal season. Against Portsmouth, Öztürk arguably had his best game of the season. He then played well in the first half at Fleetwood but found the second half tough going. Against Southend he looked rather more edgy, perhaps a result of the Fleetwood defeat, but remained strong in the air. Ross may not be ready to dispense with his services just yet.
Alongside him Tom Flangan has been a little Jekyl and Hyde. A comfortable performer and goalscorer against Portsmouth, he then turned in a poor second-half display at Fleetwood which filtered through to Roots Hall where he should have done better with Southend’s winning goal. With Jimmy Dunne and Jack Baldwin - signed as one of the league’s better defenders - waiting in the wings, does Ross make a change?
I suspect he may turn to the rested Jimmy Dunne who partnered Öztürk on his return against Doncaster and then again at Peterborough. The on-loan Burnley man has been part of a Sunderland defence keeping a number of clean sheets already this season and one more is definitely the aim today.
Defensive Midfield: Lee Cattermole & Max Power
A few weeks ago Lee Cattermole was Sunderland’s Man of the Match against Portsmouth. The former captain broke up play, won a number of tackles and moved the ball around well. Against Fleetwood, Cattermole ran the midfield and scored his seventh goal of the season, before being rested at Southend.
If Sunderland are to find any form going into the play-offs, it’s going to come from Catts. The Sunderland veteran has spoken of his desire to see this season through successfully and has openly said that will only come through promotion.
Today is the first of three games that will aim to achieve that ambition and Cattermole will undoubtedly be leading the charge.
Alongside him it’s a straight fight between Max Power, Grant Leadbitter and Dylan McGeouch. The latter may be a wildcard once more after injury ruled him out of the league run-in, but the Scot recycles play like no other in the squad. Similarly, Leadbitter is perhaps our best distributor of the football and a set-piece specialist from corners and free-kicks.
Of the three, however, Max Power plays the more advanced role most effectively and created Sunderland’s best chances against Fleetwood before being Sunderland’s best midfielder last weekend. The former Wigan man also scored recently at Peterborough and drove Sunderland on when we last played Portsmouth.
Another chance beckons for him tonight.
Attacking Midfield: Morgan, Honeyman, McGeady
Sunderland’s best formation is arguably 4-2-3-1 and Jack Ross has the players returning to make the switch today.
George Honeyman operates in the central role in a way like no other player in the squad. His ability to drop deep and support the defensive duo has been key when playing sides who retain possession, much like Portsmouth. He also covers the ground to press high when the full-backs attempt to bring the ball out of defence. Again, Portsmouth look to their quality wide-players to make things happen and Honeyman’s style will be crucial to countering that tactic.
Out wide Lewis Morgan’s direct style has won many fans over this season. Perhaps he took a while to settle, but Ross trusts him immensely and he’s a player that can make things happen, proving a handful for many defences since his arrival on loan from Celtic. The winger was lively against Portsmouth and Fleetwood before being rested at Southend. Like Cattermole, his return to the side could provide a timely swing in Sunderland’s form.
The return of Aiden McGeady, though, is the single most crucial selection of the day. How Sunderland have missed his creativity, skill and eye for goal! He could well prove the difference in the next three games between securing promotion and falling into a second season in League One. The Irishman has became Sunderland’s talisman and Portsmouth will know the Wearsiders are a completely different proposition if he starts today.
Striker: Charlie Wyke
Charlie Wyke or Will Grigg? Who will get the nod for tonight’s crucial game? If form is to be the measure then I’ll argue Charlie Wyke is the man.
Will Grigg missed two big chances against Fleetwood and was below par in his performance that day. Against Southend he fared a little better. Jack Ross recently mentioned how he had greater expectations of the former Wigan striker, but patience and time is not on their side.
Charlie Wyke caused a real nuisance of himself upon his return to the side at Southend, winning one penalty and had a strong claim for another. Against Portsmouth a few weeks ago, Wyke also caused problems and will be keen to go one better today and secure the win.
On that occasion Grigg came off the bench and had a far better impact than when starting, as he hit the post. Perhaps this is the best way to use Grigg and cement a Sunderland lead going into the second leg?