Sunderland go into today’s game at the Stadium of Light knowing that they need a minor miracle to keep their promotion hopes alive and to achieve a second Wembley trip of the season.
After suffering a two-goal defeat at Sincil Bank on Wednesday night, we can expect a few changes going into this afternoon’s game. Firstly, due to the fact that we need to score at least two goals - meaning some more attacking players are likely to feature, and, secondly, in order to replace some of the worst performers from midweek.
Unlike the midweek game, we have a pretty good idea of who the group of players Lee Johnson has to choose from for today - Denver Hume, Conor McLaughlin and Jake Vokins can all be added to the long-term absentees Jordan Willis, Arbenit Xhemajli and Dion Sanderson. Despite rumours of a contract dispute in the buildup to this game, Lee Johnson claimed in his press conference that the league’s top assister, Aiden McGeady, is available to start today.
Here’s how I think the Lads will line up.
Like many of the players in the Sunderland squad, tonight could be the last we see of Lee Burge in between the sticks at the Stadium of Light regardless of the result.
Burge has been a mediocre ‘keeper throughout his two seasons at the club, and we desperately need him to grab a clean sheet today, and considering we need a couple of goals the former Coventry number one could have a few saves to make.
RB: Power CB: Wright CB: O’Nien LB: McFadzean
After conceding two very soft goals at Sincil Bank in midweek, there’s a good chance we see at least two changes to the back four which started in midweek.
Tom Flanagan let the ball get past him at the back post for the home side’s first goal, before his poor pass back to Lee Burge led to the Imps’ second. Sunderland simply don’t have the margin for error to make mistakes like these this afternoon and Flanagan should be dropped to the bench in order for Luke O’Nien to resume his place at the heart of the back four alongside Bailey Wright.
If O’Nien is to move into the centre, Max Power is the most likely option to take his position at right-back after Conor McLaughlin was ruled out for the rest of the season. Power was also poor for the home team’s first goal, but we’ve seen throughout the campaign how reluctant Johnson has been to drop his captain and I think being removed from the midfield is the closest we will get to Power being punished for his poor display on Wednesday night.
At left-back, Denver Hume’s injury means that Callum McFadzean will somehow end the season as a starting player despite being horrendous for the entire campaign. I can’t wait to see us get someone capable in during the summer.
RM: Gooch CM: Leadbitter CM: Scowen LM: McGeady
The need for goals means that I’m backing Lee Johnson to field two strikers for today’s game, meaning that the 4-2-2-2 formation which was used earlier in the campaign could be about to make a comeback.
In the centre of the midfield, Max Power could and should be dropped into right back - if not the bench - which means that Grant Leadbitter is likely to start alongside Josh Scowen in our biggest game of the season so far.
In the wide areas, Lynden Gooch was probably just the better than Jordan Jones at Sincil Bank and after a good finish to the season we will probably see the American start today’s game on the right.
Despite the rumours of a contract stalemate between the club and Aiden McGeady, I simply can’t see Lee Johnson leaving out the one player in the squad who is capable of creating something out of nothing. McGeady could have bagged a couple of goals in the away leg and will be keen to make a positive impact and get Sunderland back to Wembley.
ST: Stewart ST: Wyke
If Sunderland are to field two strikers for this game, there’s little doubt that it will be the duo of Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke who will spearhead the Black Cats’ attack.
Some have called for Wyke to be dropped, and if he is then it's likely that Chris Maguire or Jack Diamond would take the final place in the front four in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but I can’t see our top scorer being dropped for a game in which we need goals.
Wyke has probably looked at his best with someone alongside him, first in Phil Parkinson’s 5-3-2 and then in Lee Johnson’s 4-4-2, and with Ross Stewart offering more of a goal threat than Aiden O’Brien this is a front two capable of doing the business on their day. Hopefully, that day is today.