Will it be automatic promotion or the play-offs? It’s still a valid question because the top of the table is so tight, and with ten matches left there is still plenty of room for twists in the tale. Rotherham still have to play Fleetwood, Portsmouth, Doncaster and of course Sunderland. Coventry’s victory over Sunderland - which allowed them to go top with a two point lead and a game in hand - may well be a big turning point for the Sky Blues, but the match also marks another crossroads in Sunderland’s season.
It’s worth remembering that to even be fifth and four points from second after Sunderland found themselves seemingly careering in the other direction at Christmas is a small miracle itself, but having engineered that turnaround it’s not inconceivable the next ten matches could also lead to another at the end of the season, and achieving automatic promotion would be quite remarkable in its own right.
It’s now down to the decisions Phil Parkinson takes in the light of the Coventry defeat.
Before the match at St. Andrew’s a number of fans were wondering whether, despite the team’s run of good form, there should be changes. Charlie Wyke, Denver Hume, even Lynden Gooch’s form in the last couple of matches had dipped, but Parkinson was caught between a rock and a hard place.
Drop one or two and then lose, an accusatory finger could be pointed in his direction for making the wrong call. The defeat against Coventry though opens the door to changes.
Kyle Lafferty for Wyke seems the obvious refresher and now may be the opportunity Declan John is hoping for. The wider question though remains the formation.
There is no question Sunderland have been handicapped in the promotion race by not having an out-and-out striker. Their rivals all have recognised goalscorers. Godden, Ladapo, Toney, Marquis and Madden, while Sunderland’s ‘strikers’ are the dud missile that is Will Grigg and Antoine Semenyo, who is currently being deployed as a wide player. The onus has fallen upon Gooch and Maguire to provide the goals, and whilst they have done an admirable job, at the cutting edge of the table it’s significant that Sunderland have failed to beat any of their near rivals, apart from Wycombe, while their form has been good.
Sunderland now have a run of matches which should afford them maximum points.
With all due respect to Gillingham, at home Sunderland should be winning at the weekend. The team needs to be freshened up and the question is, is it time to gamble up front? Antoine Semenyo is seen as a striker by Bristol City, and from the little we have seen of him he has some pace, and has been getting into the penalty area whilst not being afraid to track back and work hard.
Two up front? Lafferty and Semenyo and sacrifice Power or Dobson or perhaps controversially, rest Gooch? Food for thought.
Unquestionably in my mind though the defeat by Coventry is a crossroads, and it has opened the door for Phil Parkinson to make the changes he himself admitted he and his coaching staff have been considering.
One big question is what to do with Will Grigg. Is it time to gamble on his return?
In the light of Watmore’s injury, Grigg got on the bench ahead of John and Smith which suggests if needed - and there is an argument he could have been thrown on at St. Andrew’s as Sunderland had nothing to lose late on - Parkinson would have been willing to use him. If not, why put him on the bench at all? If Watmore is fit does he start, with Maguire reverting to the left? There are options for Phil Parkinson but, above all, this weekend is the chance to regroup and push on again for the last quarter of the season.
There are three matches before the probable three-week break – depending too on what happens with the international break, as the Coronavirus continues to overshadow - three winnable matches. Sunderland have given themselves a terrific platform with their form since the turn of the year, and it would be galling now to see their hopes of automatic promotion slip from their grasp.
Ultimately it may be out of their hands, but there is nothing Sunderland can do about that but concentrate on themselves. It could all come down to that last match of the season at the New York Stadium... and knowing Sunderland, it probably will!