It feels like a lifetime ago now, but a Covid-affected Sunderland team drew one-all at home to AFC Wimbledon in their last game in League One. With Jordan Willis and Lynden Gooch returning from injury over the break, it’s almost certain Lee Johnson will make a number of changes from that side for the trip to Northampton.
One benefit of the enforced break is that it has given Lee Johnson the opportunity to assess his first few games in charge, and to develop a better understanding of his best eleven. With all this considered, here's the team I think will start this afternoon.
After all of Sunderland's goalkeepers tested positive for COVID-19 during the recent break, it's presumed that they will restart the league season in the same pecking order from the end of 2020.
This means Lee Burge retains the number one shirt he's had all season, and if he performs as he did in Sunderland last away match, Lee Johnson's side has a good chance of leaving Northampton with all three points.
RB: Sanderson CB: Wright CB: Willis LB: McFadzean
Until Lee Johnson's press conference yesterday confirmed both Luke O'Nien and Denver Hume are still unavailable due to injury, there was a slight chance that we would see a complete overhaul of Sunderland's back four.
Callum McFadzean is a player who can count himself very lucky if he gets another chance before Hume's return after a horrific performance against Wimbledon last time out.
Dion Sanderson has showed that he has a bit more athleticism than Conor McLaughlin, and even though he mainly impressed at centre half with the way he carried the ball forward out of defence, Jordan Willis' return means that Sanderson is likely to play at right back this afternoon. Bailey Wright is pencilled in on every team sheet between now and the end of the season.
DM: Leadbitter CM: Embleton CM: Power
Sunderland are pretty light on numbers generally in midfield, and Josh Scowen's continued absence makes the starting trio easier to choose in this position.
Elliot Embleton gained mixed reviews last time out, but certainly deserves a start ahead of George Dobson who is the most senior competitor for his position. The other option, Dan Neil, has recently been liked with a loan love away from the club in January – and while that may or may not come to fruition it probably does show that Embleton is ahead of his fellow academy graduate in the midfield pecking order.
Max Power and Grant Leadbitter are both certain picks in the midfield until Scowen returns, with the latter a good shout for Sunderland's player of the season so far.
RW: Diamond ST: Wyke LW: McGeady
The part of the team most badly affected by Covid-cases for the Wimbledon game seems to have been the attack, with Charlie Wyke, Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady all missing out just a couple of days after playing a significant role in the 4-0 win at Lincoln.
The attack has been boosted by Lynden Gooch's return from injury, but I'm picking Lee Johnson to stick with the trio that put Sunderland three goals ahead in the first half at Sincil Bank.
That means Jack Diamond, Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke will be named as the starters, and with both Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch on the bench Sunderland suddenly look like a team with some strength in depth.