After beating Lincoln City 3-1 last week, Sunderland host Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Sunderland’s form under Phil Parkinson has improved, with the lads unbeaten in 5 games. Their improved form has seen the club rise to 9th in the League One table, just one point away from the playoffs and six from the automatic promotion positions.
In contrast, Wycombe have the been the surprise package in League One so far this season, sitting top of the table with 44 points. Having said that, Ainsworth’s team have failed to win in their last four games which has seen their lead over Rotherham decrease.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Wycombe’s BBC radio commentator Phil Catchpole to discuss how the Chairboys are enjoying life at the top of the League One table, as well as what we can expect to see from them during the game.
MC: Last time we spoke, Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth was strongly linked with both Sunderland and Millwall, however he was overlooked for both jobs - are you now confident he will be staying at the club until the season concludes or do you think he will attract further interest?
PC: If Wycombe continue to punch above their weight then the interest will keep coming and even if they fall away in the second half of the season, the job he has done on tiny resources deserves respect. There will always be bigger clubs with impatient owners and fans who will feel entitled to success, but I think that Gaz would love to see the season out at Wycombe.
MC: In what has been a surprise to many pundits, Wycombe have been top of the League One table for a consistent period now - what have been the main reasons behind the team’s success this season?
PC: Team spirit and unity plus a League largely made up of teams who weren’t willing to fight quite as hard as Wycombe in the first half of the season. It’s tough to single players out in what has certainly been a team effort but Darius Charles has been immense at the heart of the Chairboys defence. He has an arthritic hip and doesn’t train with the team most of the week but he has been the calm leader of a very tight defence this season.
The other obvious reason is the manager, and Wycombe fans were mightily relieved to see Phil Parkinson get the job at the SoL. Ainsworth gets absolutely everything out of what little he has, plays to the strengths of the squad and treats success and failure in the same way.
MC: Having said that, the Chairboys have failed to win in their last four games, losing three of them against Oxford, Portsmouth and Coventry - is there a feeling amongst the fans that perhaps the wheels are starting to fall off?
PC: Maybe. The congested fixture schedule was always going to be tricky for a squad the size of Wycombe Wanderers and Oxford are probably the best team I have seen in L1 this season. The disappointing result was the loss to Coventry as the performance was well below what fans had come to expect at Adams Park, but it remains the only home defeat in the League so far.
I think being top for as long as Wycombe have been has resulted in teams perhaps looking past the Akinfenwa factor and seeing what else makes the Chairboys tick. It’s been a common mistake this season.
MC: Whilst Wycombe have been colossal at home, beating Sunderland 1-0 in Phil Parkinson’s first match, away from home Ainsworth’s team have struggled to both score and win consistently - do you think Wycombe’s away form could spoil their promotion hopes?
PC: Not really. Winning your home games and nicking a point on the road will get you in the mix come the end of the season. Coventry’s win at Adams Park over Christmas was their first away win of the season and they are right up there. It’s a funny old division this year and a lot of teams will consider themselves to be in with a shot, including Sunderland if you can get a run going.
MC: Sunderland have recently switched to a 5-2-2-1/3-4-2-1 formation under Parkinson which has seen the resurgence of Turkish centre-back Alim Ozturk. He is known for his more traditional style of defending - do you think he will be able to handle to power of Adebayo Akinfenwa?
PC: Akinfenwa is not a nailed on starter these days and if he does start, keeping him quiet is not the end of the job as it can sometimes leave a few gaps for the other players in the team to exploit.
Coventry are the only team I’ve seen take Wycombe apart this season, and they played a similar system to the 5-2-2-1 you mention so Parky might be onto something there. Whoever plays, I think it will be a proper battle.
MC: The January transfer window is now open, are you expecting Wycombe to invest to further their promotion push or is it more a case of convincing your best players to stay at the club amid interest from superior leagues?
PC: I can’t see much happening in terms of bringing new faces in, unless some players are sold or moved on. Money continues to be tight and the salary cap rules haven’t left much wriggle room, especially with Wycombe failing on all the cup fronts early this season.
No doubt a few of the Chairboys will be on the radar of the bigger clubs but hopefully the takeover of the club will be happening at some point this month. This should remove the need to sell to service the debt and if players do go, hopefully some decent money can be negotiated for them.
MC: Newcastle winger Rolando Aarons’ loan spell at Wycombe concludes next week, how has he performed for the club and do you think the club will look to extend that loan?
PC: It’s been an injury hit spell and we are yet to see Aarons at full tilt. There have been flashes of brilliance and his adoption of the Ainsworth work ethic has surprised a few but I think fans were hoping to see him terrorise League 1 defences more than he has so far.
I guess that it’s up to your good friends up the road whether he stays at Adams Park or not. Rolando has really embraced the team spirit at Wycombe and is a popular lad in the dressing room, so if it was up to him, I reckon he might stay.
MC: Who are the eleven Wycombe players you expect Ainsworth to select and what style of play can we expect to see during the match?
PC: 4-3-3 with a high press and getting the ball in the box from all set pieces.
Allsop (GK), Phillips, Stewart, Charles, Jacobson, Ofaborh, Bloomfield (C), Freeman, Wheeler, Samuel, Smyth.
MC: Lastly, Wycombe drew 1-1 in their last visit to the Stadium of Light, what do you think the final score will be this time around?
PC: 1-1 again.
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