Sunderland travel to Burton Albion this afternoon, looking to build on what has been a positive last week or so for the Black Cats on and off the field with the takeover finally going through.
Lee Johnson’s side have also managed to recover well from the frustrations of their 2-1 defeat at Shrewsbury Town on the field. A resounding 4-1 win against fellow promotion-chasers Doncaster Rovers was followed up by a penalty shootout win against League One high-flyers Lincoln City in the Papa John’s Trophy to book them a place at Wembley.
The Black Cats have the chance to build on that momentum here and coming up against the division’s basement club it is a huge chance to start to really mount their promotion challenge. However, their opponents will represent a much tougher challenge than they might first appear having improved under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and having secured vital back-to-back wins.
Here, we take a look at some of the potential dilemmas that Johnson will be faced with ahead of the clash with Burton…
How to avoid the same frustrations they endured in the reverse fixture
Sunderland were held to a very underwhelming 1-1 draw by Burton when the two sides last met at the Stadium of Light in League One back at the start of December. The Black Cats struggled to break down a side that defied their poor defensive record heading into that fixture and were left scrambling for a late goal to rescue a point from proceedings.
That game came with Sunderland having just allowed Phil Parkinson to leave the club, and things have improved a lot since Johnson took over. However, this game still represents a potential hurdle of complacency. Burton are a much-improved side since the two sides met as well and Hasselbaink will have his side believing they can upset the Black Cats once again here.
Johnson now has the weapon of Aiden McGeady at his disposal and the renewed form of Charlie Wyke upfront, which are two major advantages Sunderland have to the last time the two sides met. This game could therefore prove to be a clear sign of how much things have improved since early December.
How to start keeping clean sheets more consistently again
In January, Sunderland were starting to show signs of real solidity at the back under Johnson and they managed to keep five clean sheets in their first seven matches of the calendar year in all competitions. That was looking like it might well be the platform they needed to go on a winning run of form during the second half of the campaign.
However, since the 1-0 win at Ipswich Town, they have failed to keep another clean sheet in the league in their last four matches. Two goals were shipped at home to Gillingham which meant more frustrating points were dropped, while they also conceded twice against both MK Dons and Shrewsbury. Sunderland need to avoid that type of defensive sloppiness if they are to go up.
The Black Cats have been enduring injuries at the back that have not helped matters over the last few weeks. However, you feel if they are to go and secure a place in the play-off places that they need to start getting back to keeping clean sheets on a more regular basis.
How to deal with defensive injury crisis
The biggest dilemma facing Johnson against Burton is the potential for them to be without a recognised centre-back, which is how they finished the game against Lincoln City in midweek. That is because Bailey Wright is a doubt with a calf problem picked up in that win in the Papa John’s Trophy.
Johnson is already without the likes of Jordan Willis, Tom Flanagan, Arbenit Xhemajli, and young defender Ollie Younger. That means he is going to have to come up with a plan to solve the crisis and find someone to fill in alongside Luke O’Nien. Matters will be helped by Dion Sanderson’s return to involvement though.