The Wearsiders treat fans to perhaps their best performance of the season when they thrashed The Imps on their own turf, scoring 3 by half time and putting the game to bed with a fourth in the 72nd minute. The Sunderland faithful will be hoping for a repeat of that stellar performance, one which would put their side in an excellent position when the Stadium of Light hosts the second of the two legs a mere three days later.
The story so far…
Sunderland limped their way to the end of the season after the wheels spectacularly came off to bury any chance of automatic promotion.
Against a battling Plymouth side it took the timely dismissal of defender Jerome Opoku to give Sunderland a chance to see the game out in style.
After watching his side equalise in the 62nd minute, Opoku received his second yellow two minutes later.
Sunderland then went on to score two goals, one being a penalty, to put some gloss on what was in all honesty a pretty average performance by the Wearsiders.
Northampton visited the Stadium of Light for the last fixture of the regular season with little more than pride to play for, as the Cobblers relegation back down to League Two had already been confirmed.
Neither side established any semblance of dominance, desire or agency in attempting to dictate the proceedings of the game, with the play on offer distinctly taking on the personality of an end of season dead rubber.
The game passed both sides by with little being created in terms of excitement or clear cut chances on goal.
Surprisingly in the last 10 minutes, fans who had made it to this point in what was a dire contest, were treated to two late goals.
Sunderland’s comical defending gifted the Cobblers a free kick in a dangerous position and the result almost felt predetermined for Black Cats fans.
Northampton defender Sam Hoskins’s free kick took a deflection on its way past the wall, and of course went beyond the Sunderland stopper Lee Burge and into the back of the net.
The Cobblers’ lead didn’t last long, with Sunderland’s January arrival Carl Winchester finishing from close range after Jordan Jones’ effort spectacularly ricocheted off both posts and then fell at Winchester’s feet to finish.
This saved Sunderland’s blushes and ensured that the Wearsiders didn’t finish the season on confidence gutting low in what would have been a terribly depressing omen of things to come in the play offs.
Lincoln enjoyed a pretty inconsistent end to their own season which saw them finish their regular fixtures with a loss and an uninspiring draw.
Charlton hosted The Imps in their penultimate game of the season and thrashed Michael Appleton’s side 3 goals to 1, with Lincoln’s Harry Anderson grabbing a late consolation goal in the dying minutes of the match.
Wimbledon was the final opposition of the regular season at Sincil Bank and the Dons matched Lincoln in nearly every department.
The Imps had the better of the shots and shots on target stats, but apart from those positives there was little for the Lincoln faithful to shout about and much like Sunderland, had to settle for a rather disappointing draw.
What could go down?
Sincil Bank and Lincoln should hold no fear for this Sunderland side, especially after 10 days rest to put their calamitous end to the season out of sight and out of mind.
The Black Cats put four past The Imps back in December in style, with young Jack Diamond having a particularly eye catching game.
Sunderland have also drawn with Lincoln at the Stadium of Light and beaten them on penalties on their way to a Wembley final win to secure some silverware for Wearside in the form of the Papa John’s Trophy.
Lincoln can be scintillating in attack, but have proven throughout the season that they can be tragic in defence.
Mistakes at the back have proven too common for the Imps and when teams pressure their back four they tend to yield an error or two which the opposition can take advantage of.
It was the aforementioned Jack Diamond who caused all kinds of problems down the right with his pace and direct running during the big win back in December, and the young academy product may just be called back into starting action for tonight.
Fans could also see the pacier and trickier Ross Stewart deployed up front.
Many would acknowledge that the big Scot who only arrived in January seems to offer more in terms of bringing others into the game and counter pressing that Sunderland’s top scorer Charlie Wyke has of late.
The former Boro graduate Wyke seems to have hit a little slump in form and has offered little more than a presence in the box in recent games.
Aidan McGeady will be creator in chief for the Black Cats, a role which he has assumed since being brought back into the first team fold by manager Lee Johnson.
The Ireland international could use some help though and Sunderland fans will be eager to see more from Rangers loanee Jordan Jones and the mercurial Lynden Gooch, both of which have the experience and skills to have significant positive impacts on games.
Last but not least, there could also be a role for big game player Chris Maguire.
The Scot has struggled for game time since the arrival of Johnson as Sunderland manager, but fans are well aware of the moments of magic he can produce (much like he did in the play offs against Portsmouth two seasons ago) and his services and skills may well be required tonight.
In all honesty I think that we’ll come out on top.
Our lads have been involved in knockout competitions already this season and the core of the team has suffered play off disappointment already, a huge carrot to not repeat the heartbreak of two seasons ago.
Listening to what Michael Appleton’s been saying pregame, it looks like there could be changes to his starting eleven and that could disrupt any cohesion his team may have been forming.
That would of course help Sunderland to maintain the all-important attacking pressure on the Imps back four, a back four which has already shipped 50 goals this season.
The Imps will also be playing in front of a home fans for the first time in over 12 months and they will be expecting a performance.
The pressure of playing in front of a fan base which has been starved of live action and the added expectation of winning against fellow promotion rivals who just happen to be the biggest club in the division might prove too much for such an inexperienced team.
I’m going for a 2-1 win to Sunderland. We know our defence has a mistake in them, but we also have goals in our team and we should make the most of this opportunity to ensure a second trip to Wembley this season.
Ha’way the Lads!