Sunderland and Portsmouth will be aiming to take a step closer to achieving promotion to the Championship, when they meet in the League One Playoffs first leg.
The league season is all done and dusted in the lower tiers of English football and it is that time of the season when teams vie for the final promotion spots in their respective leagues. The eye-catching playoff contest in League One sees Sunderland take on Portsmouth, in the semi-final, with the first leg set to be played at the Stadium of Light on Saturday night.
It has been an odd season for Sunderland, who were initially touted to be the favourites to make their way back up to the Championship straightaway. But, after a strong start to the season, the Black Cats meandered in the playoff positions, pretty much for the entire second half of the season, before eventually finishing a disappointing 5th after 46 rounds of league football.
Portsmouth, on the other hand, continued their bid to return to the upper echelons of English football. Pompey though, would be frustrated at missing out on an automatic spot, having led the table till the end of January. In the end, they failed to make the cut by three points and now have to go through the more difficult route of a Playoffs win.
Portsmouth are unbeaten in three contests against Sunderland this season, with the most recent clash, also played at the Stadium of Light last month, finishing in a 1-1 draw. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the League One Playoff encounter.
Team News & Tactics
Jack Ross does not have any fresh injury concerns to deal with ahead of the visit of Portsmouth. On Saturday, Duncan Watmore will be the only player expected to be unavailable, although the 25-year-old winger is closing in on his return from injury.
The good news for the hosts is that Aiden McGeady is fit and available. So are key midfielders George Honeyman and Lee Cattermole. The trio should return to the starting lineup, in what will be a major boost to Sunderland ahead of the crucial Playoffs semi-finals.
While Cattermole will sit in front of the defence and hope to provide enough cover to the backline, he will have support from Max Power, who will also aim to provide the forward thrust from midfield. Honeyman will provide the creative threat from the hole, with McGeady starting on his right.
On the opposite flank, Celtic loanee Lewis Morgan will hope to provide width and a pacy outlet, while Will Grigg is expected to get the nod ahead of Charlie Wyke to lead the line for Sunderland. At the back, there are unlikely to be any surprise selections, with Tom Flanagan and Alim Ozturk forming the central defensive partnership, while Bryan Oviedo and Adam Matthews ought to be the two full-backs.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): McLaughlin; Matthews, Ozturk, Flanagan, Oviedo; Cattermole, Power; McGeady, Honeyman, Morgan; Grigg
Kenny Jackett, like his counterpart in the Sunderland dugout, does not have any fresh injury news on his hands either, ahead of the long trip to the North East. On Sunday, the Portsmouth boss will be without just two first-team players, with Dion Donohue (groin) and Jack Whatmough (knee) the only absentees.
Craig MacGillivray should line up between the sticks again for Pompey, while promising young defender Matt Clarke is an ever-present at the heart of the defence. The onus will be on the duo to thwart the Sunderland attack in order to ensure Portsmouth incur minimal damage on Saturday.
Christian Burgess should line up alongside Clarke in the visitors’ central defensive partnership, having forged a strong tandem with the young centre-back. Lee Brown ought to be the left-back for Portsmouth, while Nathan Thompson is a regular on the opposite flank.
Tom Naylor will be the key man in midfield, with 27-year-old tasked with providing cover to the backline. Ben Close should partner him in the double pivot. Up ahead in attack, the width will be provided by Ronan Curtis and Jamal Lowe.
Brett Pitman will lead the side out on Saturday, playing off central striker James Vaughan, who incidentally spent last season on loan at Sunderland.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): MacGillivray; Thompson, Burgess, Clarke, Brown; Close, Naylor; Lowe, Pitman, Curtis; Vaughan
- This will be Sunderland’s first appearance in the playoffs at any level since 2004, when they were eliminated from the semi-finals of the second-tier playoffs on penalties by Crystal Palace.
- Portsmouth are appearing in the Football League playoffs for a third time; they have now featured in the playoffs in the second, third and fourth tiers of English football, becoming the 11th club to do so (Tranmere Rovers became the 10th such side this season).
- The side finishing 5th has been promoted via the third-tier playoffs on fewer occasions than any other position (five times), with Barnsley the last side to do so in 2006. Sunderland were placed fifth at the end of the league season.
- Sunderland are without a win in nine contests against Portsmouth across all competitions (D4 L5), dating back to their 2-0 win in the Premier League in January 2008.
- Portsmouth attacker Jamal Lowe has been directly involved in eight goals in his last ten appearances in all competitions (five goals, three assists), including two goals in two games against Sunderland during this run.
Player to Watch
Like recent seasons, Sunderland have failed to be a prolific team, especially in recent months. The same cannot be more palpable in the fact that Josh Maja, who left the club in January, is still their top scorer. The only other player to get into double figures for the season is Aiden McGeady.
And, the veteran winger’s return from injury could not have been more well-timed, with Sunderland struggling to rack up the wins in recent weeks. The 33-year-old will provide a direct threat in the final third, and his interchangeability going into central areas will be crucial.
Against a Portsmouth defence that shown some vulnerabilities lately, McGeady will be key, especially on the flank where Lee Brown is expected to leave some open spaces behind him. A key fixture for the Scotsman.
Sunderland 1-1 Portsmouth
The game pits two sides that haven’t managed to come into the playoffs on the back of strong runs of form. While Portsmouth are without a win in three, Sunderland have gone one worse, having managed to fail to record a three-pointed in their last four games.
But, the fact that both the defensive units are quite leaky does set this match up to be quite a captivating one, at least for the neutrals. Both the goalkeepers can be expected to be busy men in goal, but their individual qualities should mean there is unlikely to be a lot of goalmouth action.
In the end, there is unlikely to be a lot to separate the two sides, with each of their winless streaks continuing. The Hard Tackle predicts a 1-1 draw, with Portsmouth taking the slight advantage home, leaving it all to play for in the second leg next week.