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Starting XI: ONE CHANGE? Is this Sunderland’s team for today’s winner-takes-all Play-Off Final?

Sunderland will be promoted to the Championship today with a win at Wembley - is this the starting XI that Jack Ross will select to get us there? Our man Mark Carrick is predicting just ONE CHANGE - and it’s a big one.

Image: Getty Images

Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin

When I started writing these articles for the Play-Off games I mentioned that three clean sheets would give us a great platform and, given the fact we had scored in all-bar-one league game of the campaign, likely promotion. Jon McLaughlin has upheld his side of the bargain thus far and kept two from two in both legs of the semi-final against Portsmouth. One more today and we may finally realise the pre-season aim of bouncing back to the Championship at the first attempt.

For me, McLaughlin has been Sunderland’s Signing of the Season and Player of the Season. Granted, Aiden McGeady won the official award for the latter, but without McLaughlin we simply wouldn’t be here today. There aren’t many who deserve promotion more than the Scotland international and I’m sure he’ll be the first to celebrate if we do.

Can McLaughlin make it three clean-sheets from three and achieve promotion today?
Image: Getty Images

Defence: O’Nien, Flanagan, Öztürk, Oviedo

Jack Ross will surely be content to leave the back four as is, given their performances over Portsmouth. Bryan Oviedo, for example, has arguably played his best football of 2019 during the play-off semi-finals. His presence down the left offered Sunderland as much in attack as in defence and his role will be key again if Sunderland are to exploit the gaps left by Charlton’s favoured diamond formation. On the right hand side, the natural instincts of Luke O’Nien to support the midfield will add to the attacking intent of the side and take the game to Charlton.

Both full-backs will have to defend well and as a unit once more if they are to keep the likes of Joe Aribo and Lyle Taylor quiet. Alim Öztürk and Tom Flanagan have produced a balanced and disciplined core to the defence and another round of no-nonsense defending - keeping it simple and letting the more gifted individuals in the team manage the football - will be the order of the day.

A surprising back-four selection from just a month or two ago, but one that has since earned the right to play at Wembley and hopefully see Sunderland promoted come early evening.

Will Luke O’Nien and Tom Flanagan be celebrating again this evening?
Image: Getty Images

Midfield: Cattermole, Leadbitter, Honeyman

How does Jack Ross set up his midfield? It’s a question that many will have contemplated this week but only one man has the answer - and I don’t envy him!

For much of the season it’s been a defensive duo, asked to protect the back four and play behind an attacking quartet. Often that’s three attacking midfielders and a striker, but at times that has been two wide men and two strikers.

However, the trio of Cattermole, Leadbitter and Power worked very well at Fratton Park and nullified Portsmouth’s midfield. Would Ross keep the same tactics today? Well, we clearly had a lead to defend, which won’t be the case today. Also the Wembley pitch is more expansive than Fratton Park. Yet there is an argument for 4-3-3, given the manner in which Sunderland reached this final.

With the anticipated return of Aiden McGeady, however, someone will miss out today. The question will be whether Grant Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole have the legs to control a crucial area together or whether Max Power is a better option alongside one or other? Could all three retain their places and support each other or does George Honeyman drop deeper to provide the energy within the trio?

It’s a tough call, but I suspect Ross will name Honeyman as his captain, keep faith with the experienced duo of Cattermole and Leadbitter, and it will be Max who drops to the bench.

How will Ross set up his midfield? Will Honeyman and Leadbitter both figure today?
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Attack: Maguire, McGeady, Wyke

4-3-3 would allow Ross to operate two attacking players in support of a central striker. Chris Maguire’s form in the semi-finals saw the Wearsiders through to this final and it was his goal from one moment of magic that won the tie. Wembley is the biggest stage and one that Maguire will undoubtedly thrive on. He will, of course, have competition from the likes of Lynden Gooch, Lewis Morgan, or even George Honeyman were Max Power to play in a central role, but I suspect Ross will turn to his big players today and they don’t come much bigger than Maguire.

On the left the return of Aiden McGeady could be a game-changer. Sunderland battled their way past Portsmouth without their talisman but the Checkatrade Trophy final showed exactly what McGeady brings to the big stage. If the medical team have prepared the Irishman and he is ready for today, Ross must surely take the risk and start the Player of the Season in an attempt to win the game - and promotion - within 90 minutes.

As the focal point for the attack, Charlie Wyke has proved himself time and again in recent games and will deserve the opportunity today. That will mean leaving Will Grigg on the bench, but the former Wigan man brings a different challenge to a tiring Charlton defence as the game wears on. If McGeady and Maguire can get in and around Wyke and Sunderland attack with a degree of intent, this trio could prove the difference in what proves to be another tight encounter.

Chris Maguire’s goal ensured a Wembley appearance. Can he go one better and score the winner today?
Image: Getty Images