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ONE DEBUT! Is this the Sunderland side that will start tonight against Benfica B in Portugal?

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Is this the Sunderland side that will take on Benfica B in Portugal tonight? Matty Crichton has a stab at who he thinks will start - and he’s expecting Jack Ross to give a debut to his new defender.

South Shields v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
Can O’Nien and Hume retain their players at wing-back?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Goalkeeper: Jon McLaughlin

In nets I expect the big Scot Jon McLaughlin to return.

Lee Burge was steady on his debut against South Shields bar one comical attempt to run out and win the ball, but this is pre-season and as such we need to share around the minutes on the pitch.

McLaughlin was a pivotal member of our team last year and it’s brilliant to see we are trying to extend his stay at the Stadium of Light. No one can forget his performance in the play-offs at Fratton Park against Portsmouth which secured our place at Wembley.

When Sunderland last played a Portuguese B team in a competitive fixture our U23s including Ethan Robson, Elliot Embleton and Lyndon Gooch were beaten 5-0 by Porto B, so I’d fully expect McLaughlin to be in for a busy night.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off - Final - Wembley Stadium
Jon McLaughlin is expected to return for the lads
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

Defenders: C McLaughlin, Willis, Flanagan

Jack Ross surprised everyone in our victory against South Shields by adopting a formation in both halves of the game that utilised three central defenders at the back.

At right centre-back I would imagine Conor McLaughlin will retain his place - the Northern Ireland international was excellent on the ball and looked very assured in that role. He is an option to play at wing-back, but Luke O’Nien’s ability going forward is far superior.

Debuting for the lads in the middle of the three I expect to see Jordan Willis. The ex-Coventry skipper has been our most impressive signing so far during this transfer window, offering much needed pace and power in defence. Because Willis provides defensive attributes our other options lack, I imagine he will be one of the first names on the team sheet throughout next season.

Lastly, I expect to see Tom Flanagan on the left side as he is the most comfortable playing with both feet. Flanagan was excellent against South Shields, barking orders throughout the second half as well as making some brilliant tackles. I think Flanagan is perfectly suited to a back three through his ability on the ball. His lack of physicality should hopefully be assisted by Willis ,who can win the battles against strong forwards.

Will Jordan Willis make his debut?

Midfielders: O’Nien, Robson, Leadbitter (C), Hume

Luke O’Nien was brilliant on the right-hand side against South Shields, linking up perfectly with Chris Maguire and Duncan Watmore. He hugged the touchline throughout the 45 minutes that he was on the pitch, creating space to abuse and bagged himself a goal as well. Lynden Gooch does provide great energy, but his dribbling has became highly predictable and his end-product must improve.

In the middle I would expect to see our man of the match Ethan Robson partner the expected captain Grant Leadbitter in George Honeyman’s absence. Robson was superb against South Shields, constantly wanting the ball to spring Sunderland on the attack.

Whilst Robson provides the energy, Leadbitter plays a deeper role spraying the ball around the flanks and ensures we retain possession. Elliot Embleton for me appeared nervous passing the ball forward, which is why I expect Robson to pip him for the position.

On the left flank is the only real option to play there, Denver Hume. Jake Hackett started in this position previously, but he has been excluded from the pre-season squad. As long as Sunderland still have Bryan Oviedo on the books we cannot sign another left back to compete with Hume - which isn’t a huge issue, though we’d benefit from a resolution being found regarding the Costa Rican’s future sooner rather than later.

Will Ethan Robson retain his place?
Sunderland AFC via Getty images.

Forwards: Kimpioka, Maguire, Wyke

Now for the dangermen.

Benji Kimpioka impressed many of our fans against South Shields with his direct running. The Swede attacked defenders 1 v 1 with pace and power, setting up Robson’s first half strike. If Kimpioka can shine in pre-season, we may think twice about signing another striker.

Alongside Kimpioka in the hole behind our front man I believe will be Chris Maguire. Aiden McGeady may not yet be 100% fit, which leaves the Scot as the man who we expect to pull the strings. Duncan Watmore is another option, but like Gooch his end-product must improve if he is going to cement a place in the side going forward.

Both of Sunderland’s first choice strikers are desperate to find some goalscoring form ahead of the new campaign after mediocre seasons, but I expect Charlie Wyke will get the nod to start in tonight’s game, hopefully offering the rest of the side a presence from which they can work from as the game progresses.

Can Kimpioka be the next star from our academy?
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