MARTIN O’NEILL has not bucked any expectations by steadfastly persisting with his team selection over the festive period.
The Irishman is no tinker man. Throughout his managerial career, O’Neill has extolled the benefits of a settled side.
The lack of rotation during a hectic period was one factor in Sunderland’s undoing at Liverpool on Wednesday night, albeit defensive frailty and offensive profligacy were the principle reasons behind such a tame surrender.
In mitigation to O’Neill though, the options to alter the make-up of his starting XI are not huge.
Among those on Sunderland’s bench at Anfield, only Connor Wickham can claim to have shown some form this season and none of the three substitutes that were introduced made a positive impression.
But there has to be some element of fresh legs at the Reebok Stadium tomorrow.
On a purely physical score, O’Neill has to shuffle his pack after Sunderland looked devoid of energy or sheer belief in the second half on Merseyside.
And although the FA Cup is high on O’Neill’s priority list, it still doesn’t hold the same magnitude as Premier League survival. This is the game where O’Neill has a modicum more licence to give those on the fringes an opportunity.
Stephane Sessegnon is unlikely to be risked after the Benin international limped onto the team bus at Anfield after suffering a knock in the latter stages of the first half.
That could provide an opportunity for O’Neill to experiment for the first time with a Wickham / Steven Fletcher strike partnership after neither Fraizer Campbell nor James McFadden showed any harmony with Sunderland’s top scorer in midweek.
A 6ft-plus front pair would enforce a far more direct approach from the Black Cats, yet, in a cup scrap, that might not necessarily be such a bad ploy.
This could also be an ideal opportunity for Phil Bardsley to gain some much-needed sharpness.
Missing pre-season has cost Bardsley dear this year and the full-back has never been able to muster any rhythm since returning to the first-team picture.
Bardsley’s introduction would free Craig Gardner to move into midfield and that might not be the only change to the back four.
Matt Kilgallon endured a torrid time against an admittedly superb Luis Suarez on Wednesday and after the former Sheffield United man was twice punished by Kevin Davies in April’s Stadium of Light encounter with the Trotters, O’Neill may decide to introduce Titus Bramble alongside Carlos Cuellar.
Like Bardsley, Bramble has struggled for sharpness, yet his physical might makes him an ideal combatant for Davies.
The 35-year-old, coveted by O’Neill 12 months ago, remains the spearhead for a Bolton line-up that shows little change from the one relegated in May.
But that Premier League experience in the ranks has not corresponded with any advantage to Bolton’s hopes of making an instant return to the top flight.
All three relegated sides have toiled in the Championship this season and none look capable of cashing in on next season’s bumper Premier League television deal.
But unlike Blackburn and Wolves, Bolton have not lost their stand-out players to the vultures, with even a change in the dug-out failing to provide the spark for a promotion charge.
The Trotters will test Sunderland and ruffle their feathers by peppering the visiting penalty area with high balls, and the Wearsiders certainly need to defend with more resilience than they showed at Anfield.
But they are not facing such a gifted attack tomorrow and with O’Neill promising his players a few days off next week to recharge their batteries, there is an incentive to produce one final festive effort to secure a place in the fourth round.
Verdict: Away win