Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin
Jon McLaughlin will have left the Stadium of Light pitch with a huge grin on his face on Saturday evening. The last home game of a successful year for the former Hearts stopper had ended with a clean-sheet against the league’s best performing away side. Throw in the fact this was Portsmouth and perhaps some sense of order had been restored following the Wembley shoot-out drama.
With the tie finely balanced at 1-0, McLaughlin will be on his toes this evening yet knows another resolute defensive display and a successive clean-sheet will guarantee his side returns to Wembley, this time for the chance to win promotion back to the Championship: a far bigger prize than the one lost in March.
Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Öztürk, Oviedo
All the talk this week has centred on Alim Öztürk. For Kenny Jackett, the Portsmouth manager, there was never a doubt that the Turkish defender should have been sent off. Jackett was, however, in a minority of one. Thankfully the governing body saw fit to rescind the red card and thus allowing Jack Ross to keep an unchanged back four this evening.
Jimmy Dunne performed well after replacing Lynden Gooch and staked a claim to replace Öztürk had the appeal failed. As it is, Tom Flanagan will likely see off the youngster’s challenge to his own place and line-up once more in the heart of defence. He will know just how difficult tonight will be and a lot will depend on Flanagan’s own discipline and control to see Sunderland through to Wembley.
Bryan Oviedo had his best game for a few weeks and looked far fresher than in the closing games of the regular season. His presence down the left offered Sunderland as much in attack as in defence and his role will be key again, both in terms of experience but also in keeping the Portsmouth wide-men quiet.
Similarly Luke O’Nien, playing perhaps deeper than Oviedo but nonetheless effective against the left-winger, will once more be asked to work hard in search of a clean-sheet. Playing 25 minutes with ten men meant Sunderland were pegged back, but O’Nien and his fellow defenders will take heart from that performance as they aim to keep the Pompey Chimes quiet this evening.
Defensive Midfield: Lee Cattermole & Max Power
It’s hard to see Jack Ross changing his central midfield pairing this evening. Lee Cattermole and Max Power performed well enough to combat Portsmouth’s midfield in a cagey opening period before dominiating the space in the second half. Cattermole’s work off the ball was outstanding, whilst his passing improved after the break. Alongside him, Max Power’s energy gave Sunderland a platform to launch attacks.
There is a case for bringing Grant Leadbitter in for his passing range or Dylan McGeough for his defensive game, but unless Ross will want to keep changes to a minimum knowing his side has the beating of Portsmouth already. In all the games these two sides have played the contest has been largely an even one, but last Saturday Sunderland clearly had the edge at crucial times in the contest. Ross will hope his side maintain that approach this evening.
Attacking Midfield: Gooch, Maguire, Morgan
Jack Ross reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation and it worked a treat. Especially for late-call-up Lynden Gooch. The young American had his best game for months and caused the Portsmouth defence all sorts of problems. For Gooch, perhaps more than anyone, the sending off of Alim Öztürk left a huge sense of ‘what if...?’ as the forward was withdrawn for Jimmy Dunne to maintain a back four. However, Gooch surely made enough of an impression on Ross to warrant a start at Fratton Park this evening.
Ross is playing a waiting and watching game with Aiden McGeady. The return of Sunderland’s Player of the Year would be a huge boost for the Wearsiders and no doubt put a huge dent into Kenny Jackett’s optimistic outlook on tonight’s game. The Irishman will not be risked unless it’s clear that both he and the management team are comfortable with his fitness levels. The chances are Lewis Morgan will play if McGeady fails to make it.
Morgan was not as influential as in previous weeks during the first leg on Saturday. Maybe a switch in flanks or change in responsibility, but the on-loan Celtic man will be sure to play his part tonight when called upon. Ross clearly trusts his winger and his direct style, like that of Gooch, will offer a different threat to the Pompey back-line from that of McGeady.
In the central role I’d hope Chris Maguire has done enough to start tonight. His goal was top-class and his guile and ability could be a huge factor in tonight’s game. Would Ross drop his skipper to accommodate the former Bury man? Or will Maguire be seen as an impact sub, much like the other evening? Certainly his duel with Christian Burgess may add a bit more spice to the second leg but Sunderland can ill afford to get involved with anything that allows the referee to brandish more cards tonight.
Striker: Charlie Wyke
Charlie Wyke had a couple of half-chances and played his role as target man last Saturday, but also seemed isolated at times. George Honeyman’s work-rate can hardly be knocked but his role as a number ten, with respect to getting support to the main striker, is often sacrificed as a result. The captain’s willingness to support his two central midfielders first and foremost may help contain the opposition in the middle of the park, but leaves Wyke ploughing a lonely line by himself.
Tonight it may be that Wyke needs more support, especially if Sunderland want to avoid extra-time and penalties. Switching to a formation to accommodate Will Grigg seems highly unlikely, but with Chris Maguire in the role Wyke may have more opportunities this evening. The big striker clearly relished playing with Maguire and produced his best spell with the Scot on the field.
It would be a fantastic turnaround for the former Bradford man to have recovered from injury that plagued his earlier Sunderland career and lead Ross’ men to Wembley tonight.