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Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One

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Starting XI: Who will Alex Neil pick against Gillingham this afternoon?

Alex Neil’s had a somewhat welcome two weeks off first-team action to reflect on his opening month or so as Sunderland head coach and work with the players more closely. So, how will that be reflected in his starting XI this afternoon?

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alex Neil faces some tough decisions ahead of what is essentially a seven game mini league from which we simply have to secure a play off place.

Here’s how I think he’ll line the team up today.

Goalkeeper: Anthony Patterson

Patterson’s made the (theoretical) number one shirt his own – and while much of the talk after Lincoln was of the chances we missed, his excellent save late on shouldn’t be overlooked – it ultimately gained us a point.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Patterson kept another clean sheet last time out
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Defence: Carl Winchester, Bailey Wright, Danny Batth, Dennis Cirkin

I read comments from an experienced manager recently – I think it was Sam Allardyce – that when you have to get a result he would always choose his experienced players. The ones who’ve been there and done it. Judging Alex Neil’s team selections so far, I’d say he’s of the same thinking, so for that reason I’d not be surprised if we see Danny Batth back in the team today. After an excellent debut he had a nightmare at Bolton and we’ve barely seen him since, but his track record suggests he’s an excellent player at this level. Alongside him, Bailey Wright will surely start, with Winchester and Cirkin lining up as full backs in a back four.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Good to be Batth?
Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Midfield: Corry Evans, Luke O’Nien, Alex Pritchard

Going with the experienced train of thought, I think we’ll see Corry Evans and Luke O’Nien lining up together in the middle of the park, with Alex Pritchard returning in the more advanced role. Evans has come in for a lot of – quite justified – criticism this season, but Neil seems to like him and, in fairness, he had a good game at Lincoln. I’m not sure he’s suited to playing at home when we need to break teams down, but as Neil’s shown he’s a pragmatic manager, so I think we’ll see the skipper in the starting XI. It’s mighty unfair on Dan Neil and the excellent Jay Matete – however I suspect their energy and progressive passing could prove pivotal in the second half.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Hopefully, Pritch will be back this afternoon
Photo by Ivan Yordanov/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Forwards: Jack Clarke, Ross Stewart, Patrick Roberts

I thought Patrick Roberts was superb last time out, and Jack Clarke is a real talent at this level, too. With both stepping up to full match fitness, they could be crucial for us over the coming weeks. Ross Stewart will be buoyed by his international call up, and frustrated by his lack of involvement in equal measure. He’ll have something to prove to Steve Clarke, and hopefully the Gills bear the brunt of his frustration.

International Friendly - Scotland v Poland
Stewart watched on while on international duty
Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images


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