Coming off the back of a disappointing draw that saw Sunderland drop off top spot, today’s unimportant cup game gained a new dimension as Lee Johnson will be looking to reintroduce his side to a winning habit.
Despite a fiery end to Saturday’s game, the treatment room continues to be rather empty, with Arbenit Xhemajli and Jordan Willis the only players certain to miss out. Corry Evans returned from injury from the bench at the weekend, and Denver Hume could see the opportunity for minutes tonight as an important step in his recovery.
Here’s how I think the Lads will line up.
GK: Anthony Patterson
With the introduction of new ‘keeper Hoffmann into the starting lineup, Anthony Patterson has been removed from the side despite showing signs of promise in his first couple of league appearances.
When Hoffmann came in, Lee Johnson mentioned getting Patterson 25 senior games “by hook or by crook” and although Lee Burge is the second choice stopper, the cup games could be seen as an opportunity to give vital experience to a young goalkeeper that is likely to be part of next year’s squad.
RB: Huggins CB: Wright CB: Alves LB: Hume
With Sunderland’s back four being relatively settled so far this campaign, with the exception of Tom Flanagan’s enforced absence at the weekend, the cup games provide a vital opportunity for fringe players to build their match fitness and ensure they’re ready to take advantage of any injuries or suspensions in our starting line up.
Niall Huggins probably expected to have dislodged the out of position Carl Winchester by now, the former Forest Green midfielder’s performances have surprised many, and he is one of many players looking at today’s cup tie as a chance to force his way into contention at the weekend.
Bailey Wright and Frederick Alves are also battling it out the cement their place as Sunderland’s third-choice central defender. Wright’s mistakes at the weekend probably edged Alves ahead of him the next time one of Flanagan or Doyle are unavailable, but how the pair perform tonight could also have an impact on Johnson’s future team selections.
Finally, Denver Hume is yet to return since signing his new contract at the club, and whilst he doesn’t seem to be particularly close to a full return a 45 minute run out in a midweek cup game could be a good opportunity to get vital minutes in the Sunderland full back’s legs.
CM: Evans CM: O’Nien
With Sunderland playing three of their four senior centre midfield options on Saturday, at least one of Winchester, Neil and O’Nien are likely to keep their place from the weekend as Corry Evans looks set to make his full return from the injury that kept him out of the side for the last few weeks.
With Evans likely to take Neil’s place in the side following his mediocre showing at Fleetwood, it makes sense for Luke O’Nien to partner the club captain in the middle of the park as the pair look to build an understanding in the most important area of the pitch.
RM: Dajaku AM: Pritchard LM: O’Brien
Despite naming Gooch, Embleton and McGeady in all of the league games so far, only Embleton has impressed enough to consider his place in the side a secure one and, as a result, the cup ties are a good chance for the fringe players to force their way into league action.
Leon Dajaku and Alex Pritchard are probably the closest to displacing either McGeady or Gooch - although another Aiden O’Brien hat trick would probably force Lee Johnson to pick him - and the pair will be hoping to ignite their careers in Red and White with goals and assists this evening.
Finally, with Ross Stewart such a vital part of Sunderland’s game plan, and the lack of an out-and-out replacement for the big Scot, he simply must be rested for these games meaning that Nathan Broadhead is likely to lead the line in Greater Manchester.
Broadhead’s pace and willingness to stretch play has stood out so far in his cameo appearances, but if he is to put genuine competition on Stewart, Gooch or McGeady then goals are a must, starting with tonight’s rather meaningless cup game.