Despite both teams looking like they could go up automatically at certain points in the season, Lincoln City and Sunderland meet tonight for the fourth time and will do so again for a fifth in the second leg at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon.
Apart from Sunderland’s somewhat surprising 4-0 away win the last time these sides met at Sincil Bank, the other two meetings have been tight games and both matches at the Stadium of Light finished one-all meaning that any advantage one of the sides can get going into the second leg could be crucial.
Lee Johnson said in a press conference that he will be traveling with around 20 or 21 players, and refused to name the couple of players who are injured. However, it's likely that some of the 20-man traveling party will be youngsters who have played bit-part roles so far - for example, Dan Neil and Antony Patterson.
Apart from the certain absentees - Jordan Willis, Dion Sanderson and Arbenit Xhemajli - it seems likely that the two players Johnson is referring to in his press conference were two from Tom Flanagan, Jake Vokins and Ross Stewart since all three failed to feature in the squad for the final game of the season against Northampton.
Here’s how I think the Lads will line up.
Despite ending the season with a rather lengthy run without a clean sheet, Lee Burge finished the season third in the division for number of clean sheets, behind only Blackpool’s Chris Maxwell and Lincoln’s Alex Palmer.
There remains very little to be said about Burge’s place for the next two - and hopefully, three - games, and I suspect that the chances of him signing a contract extension rest on his willingness - or lack thereof - to compete with a new number one next season.
RB: McLaughlin CB: Wright CB: O’Nien LB: Hume
Lee Johnson clearly read this article before our game against Northampton as he continued with the back four which started the game against Plymouth in order to increase our defensive cohesion in preparation for tonight’s fixture.
Conor McLaughlin has returned to fitness just in time to start in the playoffs, and he should continue with Max Power returning to his natural midfield position.
Unlike the former Millwall full-back, Tom Flanagan looks likely to miss out as one of the two injured players, and even if we see him in the squad for tonight’s game it is unlikely to be in the starting lineup with Wright, O’Nien and, if we opt for a back three McLaughlin, seemingly ahead of the former Burton utility man in the pecking order considering form and fitness.
On the left, Denver Hume’s return, like that of McLaughlin, has been timely and he is a serious upgrade on both Callum McFadzean and Jake Vokins base on the evidence we have seen from the past few months.
DM: Leadbitter CM: Power CM: Scowen
Despite opting for a two-man midfield for much of his time in charge, be that in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 formation, in all of our previous games against Lincoln City Johnson has chosen to play an extra man in order to control the middle of the park.
In the league game at the Stadium of Light, Carl Winchester played as an advanced midfielder behind Charlie Wyke, but although this tactic was successful in thwarting Liam Bridcutt it failed to get the best out of the former Forest Green man and Sunderland’s attacking play often suffered as a result.
That’s why I think that Johnson will pick the same midfield that started Sunderland’s 4-0 win at Sincil Bank at the beginning of December which means that Grant Leadbitter will look to dictate play at the base of midfield with Max Power and in particular Josh Scowen tasked with providing the legs for Sunderland’s pressing and counter-attacks.
Sunderland already have a game plan for defeating Lincoln away from home, it makes sense to use it in the most important game of the season so far.
RW: Gooch LW: McGeady ST: Wyke
Although a three-man midfield could be the best way to counter the threat of tonight’s opposition, it does leave Lee Johnson with a slight headache as to who to select in his front three.
Charlie Wyke’s selection is guaranteed after being 90% certain following Ross Stewart’s goalscoring start at Plymouth but the big January signing missed the Northampton game and will probably be forced to settle for a spot on the bench behind our thirty-goal number nine.
On the left, Aiden McGeady, like Wyke, also missed the Plymouth game through injury but his return off the bench against Northampton means he’s likely to start tonight’s game just as he has almost every game since Lee Johnson took over at the club.
This leaves just one spot for Jack Diamond, Jordan Jones and Lynden Gooch to fight over. Early in Johnson’s reign Jack Diamond would have been the obvious choice and he started the four-nil win back in December. Jordan Jones would have probably started the match if it was a couple of months ago, but his drop off in form has coincided with a resurgence of Lynden Gooch’s fortunes just at the right time, and the American’s three assists in the penultimate league game of the season should be enough to see him start tonight’s first-leg.