After a long-awaited win at Plymouth last weekend, Sunderland have nothing significant resting on today’s game apart from the desire to finish as far up the league table as possible. However, with fans likely to be allowed back into the stadium there is an advantage to be had for finishing in the top four - which a win would guarantee - and playing the second leg at the Stadium of Light.
In what will be a strong top six, one of Oxford, Portsmouth or Charlton will finish 6th, there isn’t likely to be much difference between finishing 3rd or 4th, especially since a 4th place finish would mean a semi-final against Lincoln City who Sunderland have beaten 5-1 on aggregate this season and who they defeated on penalties to get to their last Wembley final.
On the injury front, Conor McLaughlin is available after making his return to the side last weekend, whilst Tom Flanagan has trained for the last fortnight and is 50/50 according to Lee Johnson. Jake Vokins is also back in contention, although I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see him play another game before he returns to Southampton in the summer.
Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke both could play today’s game, but could also be saved for the more important play-off games, whilst Jordan Willis, Arbenit Xhemajli and Dion Sanderson are all out for the rest of the season.
Here’s how I think the Lads will line up.
If this game was a complete dead rubber for Sunderland, I’d probably be calling for Antony Patterson to be given a start, but since there are three points to be won that could make a difference in the playoffs it would be sensible to keep Burge in between the posts.
Playing your second or third choice ‘keeper in a game is generally a pretty good indicator to the players that the match doesn’t matter so Burge needs to start in order to avoid this.
RB: McLaughlin CB: Wright CB: O’Nien LB: Hume
After Conor McLaughlin returned last weekend Sunderland’s back four is beginning to take shape once again, I can see Lee Johnson starting with the same four players as he did last week in order to give them a chance to build a defensive unit going into the playoff semi-finals.
You could make a decent argument for giving Tom Flanagan a start in the centre of defence as he needs game time if he is going to feature in the playoffs, but with the former Burton defender only 50/50 for today’s game, and having been out for such a long time, I think we’re unlikely to see Luke O’Nien relieved of his defensive duties until at least next season.
At left-back, Denver Hume is likely to be reaching peak fitness after he grabbed a goal at the end of ninety minutes last weekend. Another start today should do him no harm.
RM: Diamond CM: Winchester CM: Leadbitter LM: Maguire
The position we’re most likely to see a number of changes in is, for me, centre midfield. Josh Scowen and Max Power started together last weekend but both have played a lot of football in recent weeks and could benefit from an extra weekend off in order to prepare for a couple of games in quick succession.
This means that Carl Winchester and Grant Leadbitter should both come into the side after they were on the bench last time out.
In the wide areas, Jack Diamond got his first start for a little while down at Plymouth and considering McGeady is likely to be rested again he should continue today.
On the left, Jordan Jones started the last game but his form has dipped slightly since a good start to his Sunderland career and Chris Maguire is deserving of a start after impressing off the bench.
ST: Gooch ST: Stewart
With Charlie Wyke, like McGeady, a doubt for the game Ross Stewart should start again after a good showing last weekend.
The Scottish striker has struggled as an impact player since his debut goal against Accrington, but his mobility shown and goal scored against Plymouth makes him look like a decent backup to the Sunderland number nine.
Alongside Stewart, Lynden Gooch assisted all of our goals at Home Park and should be rewarded with another start in his favoured central position.