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Match Preview: Final battle! Can Sunderland finally slay the beast and head onwards to Wembley?

After four gruelling battles we’re finally at the end - will Sunderland slay the beast and send Portsmouth packing as we head off towards Wembley and a play-off final?

Action Plus via Getty Images

Like Sunday lunch or back-to-work Monday mornings, playing Portsmouth has became something of a regular occurrence. Here we go again, with the outright winner able to book their place for another Wembley afternoon adventure.

The Gaffer says...

We used the season end as an opportunity to galvanise ourselves and I think that was reflected in the performance on Saturday night. My job is to get the best out of the playing squad and prepare as diligently and thoroughly as we possibly can.

Hopefully we can do that for two more games.

The lads are in a good place. Once we overcame a passive sense, we were good on Saturday. The first half was very tame and a little tense and flat. The second half was a little bit more like us and the game had a bit more about it then.

I would expect the minimum of the 90 minutes on Thursday to be the same because our lead will dictate that and I think the second legs of these games usually act like that as well.

The lads are desperate for the game to come around and I’m confident they can deal with the atmosphere.

[On having Alim Öztürk available:] I said post-match I thought it was an incorrect decision, so I’m pleased common sense has prevailed in that sense. We’re just glad that we will have him available for the second leg.

[Duncan Watmore] has had another couple of training sessions. He is in good shape now. We’ve got a fit and healthy squad at the minute. [With regards Aiden McGeady] we’ll just wait and make a decision on him. It will have to be a sensible decision and we’ll wait to see how he feels and then decide on the right course of action.

Jack Ross knows just two more ‘cup-finals’ stand between his side and an immediate return to the Championship
Image: Getty Images

The state of play...

It’s all to play for. One-nil is not a huge advantage for the away side.

Portsmouth, with the crowd behind them, will come out of the traps looking to get the ‘equaliser’ as quickly as possible. Going ahead on the night will hand the impetus to the home side and it will be advantage Pompey.

Jack Ross will need to approach the game in the same manner as the first leg. Sunderland simply have to put their slender advantage out of their minds and concentrate on the 90 minutes ahead of them. Ending that period win a win or, at worst, a draw will see them through, but Ross knows they can ill-afford to sit on the current one-nil scoreline.

Bryan Oviedo was excellent in the first leg and will need a similar performance tonight.
Image: Getty Images

Team News...

Jack Ross a full squad to choose from now Alim Öztürk has had his red card overturned and Duncan Watmore has taken part in training this week. The biggest concern remains Aiden McGeady’s broken foot and whether the Irishman can play with a pain-reducing injection this evening.

Ross will likely name an unchanged back four, despite the positive substitute appearance of on-loan Burnley man Jimmy Dunne. Öztürk and Flanagan performed well against Portsmouth’s attack and Jon McLaughlin had very little of note to do last Saturday. Of course, the Scottish international proved a safe pair of hands when called upon and will expect to be a lot busier this evening.

The two full-backs, Bryan Oviedo and Luke O’Nien, played well against Portsmouth’s dangerous widemen. Tonight will be another stern test but their attacking support will be as vital as their defensive duties.

In midfield Ross has a few options but again a consistent approach may serve him well. Max Power and Lee Cattermole looked comfortable in the middle of the park and grew into the game as the second half wore on. Dylan McGeough and Grant Leadbitter stand by to be called up, but the chances are Ross will continue to trust the current pairing.

If a change is coming it is more likely to occur offensively. Whilst Lynden Gooch had a good game - arguably his best for some time - if Aiden McGeady is available the American’s position is under threat. Gooch probably did enough to keep his place whilst Lewis Morgan was not so effective. Maybe Gooch will remain on the right wing even if McGeady returns and Morgan drops to the bench.

George Honeyman came close to scoring last Saturday - his header unfortunately hit Craig MacGillivray in the face when the keeper really didn’t know much about his ‘save’. Despite this passage of play, Honeyman was often a third central midfielder rather than a number ten in support of Charlie Wyke. Chris Maguire was far more effective in supporting the lone striker whilst he, of course, scored the decisive goal with a strike of some quality.

If Ross is wanting to take the game to Portsmouth he could do worse than replace Honeyman with Maguire from the start. Conversley, Maguire may be seen as an impact-sub and Ross may select Honeyman to try to dominiate the midfield area. The trade off from this more defensive approach is Charlie Wyke will remain isolated and, if Portsmouth score, can Sunderland find the front-foot from a goal down to recover the tie?

With the likes of Will Grigg, Grant Leadbitter, possibly even Duncan Watmore on the bench, Sunderland may have players to turn the game, but it’s surely better to go for the win from the outset and attack with intent.

Sunderland have to approach the game tonight with another ‘must-win’ attitude
Image: Getty Images

The view from the Home dressing room...

Despite confirming that injured Portsmouth duo Brett Pitman and Lee Brown are doubts again tonight after sitting out the first-leg at the Stadium of Light, winger Gareth Evans and manager Kenny Jackett have been in bullish mood this week ahead of the semi-final second-leg tonight.

The former Fleetwood man said:

We’ve got players who can deal with the pressure and deal with the occasion, and the whole city is looking forward to it. We’ve got the squad who can do what is required to get us to Wembley and have another big day out.

It’s still very much in the balance. There wasn’t much in it.

It’s only half-time and we said in the dressing room that we were 1-0 down half-time at Wembley. We went on to batter them in the second half - and that’s fully what we intend to do on Thursday.

At the end of the game they were celebrating like they’d’ won three or four nil. It’s only 1-0 and there’s still 90 minutes to play. We very much fancy ourselves to score a couple of goals at least.

We’re very positive and we feel like we’re a better team than Sunderland. So we have to get the result on Thursday and get the better of them.

Portsmouth v Northampton Town - Checkatrade Trophy
Gareth Evans believes Portsmouth are the better team going into the Play-Off second-leg against Sunderland
Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

Where Can I Catch The Game?

Those without a ticket can catch the game on Sky. Programs start at 7:30pm on both Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football.

Sunderland AFC have also offered fans the chance to watch the game at the Stadium of Light at the club’s stadium bars. Full details can be found on

Audio commentary will be also be provided by Nick Barnes from around 7pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website, whilst we’ll provide live commentary via our Twitter page.

After the game there’ll be a match report and player ratings article on the site - so keep an eye out for that.

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