ITEN Match Preview: Sunderland (A)
Rovers get a chance to avenge the Christmas loss at home to Sunderland in a televised rematch this Friday night, live on Sky. Can Darren Moore’s side bounce back from that and last weekend’s defeat to Coventry, their only other reverse in the last six games?
Sadlier KO opens the door
The big team news going into the game for Rovers is the absence of winger Kieran Sadlier, who has been sidelined by a concussion. The Irish winger went off at half time last Saturday having suffered a nasty blow to the face that gave him a broken nose and with the league’s concussion protocol in effect, he is ruled out of this one. It is a blow for Moore, denied the use of his top scorer in a game where chances are likely to be few and far between.
His options to replace Sadlier include Matty Blair, who has regained full fitness at just the right time having missed several months of action with a misdiagnosed groin injury which he picked up against Blackpool back in September. He is perhaps not the best fit in Sadlier’s left wing role though as, despite being the ultimate utility player, Blair is much better suited to playing on the right hand side and so Jon Taylor would have to move across to accommodate him.
With no sign of a new recruit arriving in time for the clash at the Stadium of Light then, the responsibility may well fall on Rakish Bingham, who came on for the second half against Coventry and showed glimpses in that showing but is yet to set the world alight in a Rovers shirt. Bingham could be played out wide or up front with Niall Ennis moving to the wing, or Moore may opt for a different formation entirely.
This may not be a bad move for the manager to make as packing the midfield may negate some of the physicality Sunderland have in their own central options, a factor that cost Rovers in the 2-1 loss last month at the Keepmoat.
Black Cats feeling lucky
Sunderland have come right into form over the past six weeks or so, winning four of their last five games in a run which began against Rovers. Stretching further back from that, Phil Parkinson’s side are unbeaten in seven games and have now hit the League One Play-Off places after a tumultuous start to the season that saw them well off the pace expected of them as promotion favourites.
Most of the talk surrounding the club at the moment is about transfers, both in and out, although unlike matters closer to home there has been a fair bit of activity through the door at Sunderland. Striker Kyle Lafferty could make his first start for the club having replaced Charlie Wyke in the win at Milton Keynes last time out, whilst new signing Bailey Wright is expected to go straight in at centre half as part of a back three.
Parkinson has largely stuck with the same group of players in recent weeks due to the strong positive swing in form the team has enjoyed. Roving wing backs Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien caused all sorts of problems for Rovers in the first meeting between the sides and are likely to again, with Hume buoyed by a rare goal in the 4-0 thrashing of Wycombe two weeks ago.
The club are reportedly still chasing central midfield targets but are yet to secure one, so will persist with George Dobson and Max Power in the midfield, a duo who proved too strong for Ben Whiteman and Madger Gomes last time out.
There have only been seven meetings all-time between Rovers and Sunderland, with the two rarely crossing paths across the English league pyramid. Including the recent 2-1 win for the Black Cats just after Christmas 2019, Sunderland have won every single one of the five league clashes going back to a double in the old Third Division during the 1987-88 season as Rovers finished bottom of the table that season and were relegated, with Sunderland going up as Champions under the management of Denis Smith.
They also did the double last season, winning 1-0 at the Keepmoat thanks to Chris Maguire’s goal in a full-blooded, tight affair, before running out 2-0 winners at the Stadium of Light in a game that Rovers drastically underperformed in, also in front of the Sky Sports viewership. There was also some extremely dubious officiating in the game, but it didn’t mask the poor performance for a side in the top six at the time.
Rovers have only won two fixtures against Sunderland in their history, running out 2-0 winners in an FA Cup clash in 1954 before a youthful outfit won 1-0 in an EFL Trophy fixture in October 2017, soon-forgotten midfielder Issam Ben Khemis with the only goal in that one.
Lynden Gooch ran the show in Sunderland’s 2-1 win over Rovers in December, demonstrating the ability that saw Darren Ferguson bring him here on loan a few years back. Although that spell didn’t prove fruitful, Gooch has developed into a dangerous and fluid attacking midfielder capable of stretching defences all on his own. The task of keeping him from doing the damage on Friday night is likely to fall to Ben Sheaf as Rovers’ primary screen in midfield, although he will need support from Brad Halliday to marshal the American out of prominence.