Sunderland boss Chris Coleman faces big selection choices for Millwall trip
Sunderland are gearing up for one of the biggest week's in the club's history with three crunch Championship games in the space of eight days.
Sunderland, five points adrift of Championship safety, face Millwall away on Saturday before Aston Villa visit the Stadium of Light on Tuesday ahead of another trip to the capital to face QPR next weekend.
The club’s Championship status won’t be decided by the three matches, but the results will go a long way to dictating which division the Black Cats play in next season, with League One football a real danger.
Sunderland head into the games on the back of the morale-boosting draw with Middlesbrough, which saw Chris Coleman’s side snatch a point in the 96th minute.
But the Sunderland boss will be forced into making changes once again for the visit of Millwall, with Jake Clarke-Salter suspended and Paddy McNair facing a few weeks out with a groin injury.
Training was cancelled yesterday as a result of the treacherous weather and driving conditions, but there was still much for Coleman to ponder, we assess the selection and system dilemmas here:
Stick with 5-3-2 or revert to four at the back?
With Chelsea loanee Clarke-Salter suspended for three games, Coleman must decide whether to change the shape of his defence again.
He could bring Ty Browning, dropped after a recent run of bad form, back into the side as a direct replacement.
Or he could go with a flat back four, as he did against Boro following the red card.
That would allow him to get another attacking player in the side further up the pitch; an Aiden McGeady, Callum McManaman or Kazenga LuaLua.
Verdict: This is a game Sunderland need to win, but Coleman will be keen to give his defence the best chance of keeping a clean sheet. It would be no surprise to see him go with a 5-3-2 system again. It would likely mean a recall for Everton loanee Browning.
What to do in midfield?
Coleman started with Lee Cattermole, George Honeyman and Paddy McNair in midfield against Boro, with Joel Asoro supporting Josh Maja up front.
McNair limped off with a groin problem, so Coleman has to shuffle his pack.
Fit-again Jonny Williams is a contender ,but Liverpool loanee Ovie Ejaria is closing in on a return to action, giving Coleman something of a dilemma.
Williams made a big impact when coming off the bench against Boro.
A ball carrier, there are few in the Sunderland team as comfortable with the ball at his feet.
Ejaria, who adds more of a physical presence, is also comfortable on the ball in a box-to-box role.
It is likely only one of that pair will be brought into the side at Millwall, given that Coleman is a big fan of George Honeyman’s workrate, while Cattermole enjoyed one of his more influential games against Boro last week, despite losing possession too easily.
Coleman will be weighing up whether to switch to a flat back four to add an extra attacking player into the side, McManaman has impressed off the bench against Bolton and Boro.
But Coleman may decide to keep him and McGeady as impact subs, along with LuaLua, who is unlikely to start given that he is only just coming back from injury.
Verdict? If Coleman sticks with a 5-3-2 and Ejaria is fit, then he adds a physical presence in a key area of the side.
Stick with Josh Maja or recall Ashley Fletcher?
Middlesbrough loanee Fletcher was not eligible to play against his parent club last weekend, so Maja was recalled to the starting line-up.
He played 65 minutes before being taken off, replaced by Callum McManaman, who rescued a point late into stoppage time.
Fletcher showed plenty of promise in his first couple of games, but he missed an excellent chance at Bristol City and three good openings at Bolton Wanderers and is yet to score for Sunderland.
His confidence is low and Coleman may opt to go with Maja again, with Fletcher to come off the bench later in the game.
Asoro is a definite starter given his recent impressive form.
Verdict: Maja and Joel Asoro to be tasked with leading the Sunderland attack.