Sunderland AFC Match Preview – Big Decisions to Make in Cup Decider

Jon Lambert takes us through the possible lineups ahead of Sunderland's FA Cup fifth round replay against Fulham

Here we go again as it’s the Lads turn to play host, with a classy Fulham side making the trip up to the north east for the Wednesday night knockout.

And this is the last time a replay can feature in this year’s tournament as from the fifth round onwards it gets all done on the day, or night with the possibility of penalties. As a great philosopher once said: “it’s FA Cup int it”.

The game comes as a bit of a football sandwich, with Millwall being the tough, left in the fridge far too long, cheap scraggy meat, that is accompanied either side by two of your finest slices of hipster sourdough bread. For both sets of fans they are used to being treated to technical flowing football, with a high press and plenty of the ball.

To come up against effectively your opposite number from a level above is the perfect yardstick for which Sunderland can gauge their progression. The first leg certainly showed that with an end to end contest, providing levels of football we haven’t seen since the last time we were in the top flight.

We were even first on Match of the Day, which back in the late 90s and early 00s was a bit of a running joke, when we were lucky if a pundit even mentioned us after minimal highlights (aired last of course).

So what did we learn from the first leg? Naturally, with a Premier League squad, Fulham were able to add a wealth of quality from their bench, whereas we were relying on some teenage debutants and canny positional changes to compete.

We are now strikerless following the achilles injury incurred by Ross Stewart on 14 minutes at Craven Cottage, which has ended his season prematurely. Owing to the competition rules players have to have been eligible to play in the first leg to be available for selection in the replay, which rules out Isaac Lihadji who is still sorting the finer details of a work permit. Joe Gelhardt is also unavailable after featuring for Leeds United in the third round of the competition, thus rendering him cup tied.

One man who wasn’t eligible originally but is now okay to play is Sunderland’s very own Swiss Army knife, Luke O’Nien who returns from suspension.

So who goes up top? Do we return to the autumnal days of two number tens or a false nine? That may encourage a higher line from Fulham which would almost certainly leave us camped in our own half hoping for little sniffs on the break. Could the boy O’Nien “do a job” up front, “put himself about” and “make a nuisance” of himself.. or am I just talking in cup clichés?

Could the child Chris Rigg play in advanced role, it is a school night? Or do we put Jack Clarke up top which we have done before? Personally I wouldn’t mind O’Nien as a bit of an experiment in what is essentially a free hit. He joined us as a number ten from Wycombe, is very good in the air, and possesses good physicality. Over to you Tony.

Concussion protocol will rule Dennis Cirkin out, and Joe Anderson will be ineligible to play, but Aji Alese and Niall Huggins are the options in his absence.

The two Dannys, our resident brick-shithouses Ballard and Batth will be looking to test themselves again after a defiant display against Millwall. Completing the back four is Trai Hume who is getting better with every game and has very much made that right back slot his own. A lot of credit must go to the recruitment team for unearthing such a talent, I’m sure they can almost smell the sell-on money now.

And talking of sales, the latest hot property at the Stadium of Light to be of Premier League interested is Anthony Patterson, who continues to grow as a keeper and get headlines for his remarkable shot stopping ability. It’s likely we’ll see Alex Pritchard get a run out, and maybe some extra physicality in the form of Pierre Ekwah, who coped well when brought on in the original tie.

Much has been said about the lack of ticket sales for this fixture so far, despite the heavily reduced pricing, and the outstanding numbers usually achieved on league business.

But we must remember there is a cost of living crisis, again it is a school night, and significantly we are being televised on the free to air BBC. I also wouldn’t expect many travelling fans from west London if history is anything to go by, which has in the past seen but a handful of Fulham faithful turnout.

The prize is a home midweek fifth round encounter against a struggling and now managerless Leeds in a competition with many big scalps already dumped out. 50 years since 1973, Leeds en route.. could it be our year? Probably not, but we do dare to dream.

Ha’way the Lads.