A PERFECT opportunity arises tonight for Alfred N’Diaye to make his first Sunderland start.
The stage would be set. At home against a Championship side struggling for form, with Sunderland bursting with confidence after a comprehensive Premier League victory.
But N’Diaye won’t be featuring.
The £3.8million arrival from Bursaspor wasn’t signed prior to the first game against Bolton and will not be eligible to feature in the FA Cup until the fourth round ... providing Sunderland get there.
If Martin O’Neill is going to shuffle his pack tonight, the incoming players will have to come from the batch previously at his disposal.
O’Neill is no great advocate of rotation and why would anyone change a winning side that was so impressive against West Ham on Saturday?
But with another crucial league game on the horizon next weekend at fourth bottom Wigan, O’Neill must consider the conditioning of his players, principally the centre-halves.
The capture of Kader Mangane will boost O’Neill’s options in the heart of his back four and he could well be on board for the trip to the DW Stadium.
But unless O’Neill makes the bold move of throwing the Senegalese straight into the starting XI, he will have to continue to rely on the precarious fitness of John O’Shea and Titus Bramble.
The duo performed superbly together against the Hammers, yet there are doubts over whether they will feature tonight.
Bramble’s record of knee injuries raises a question over whether he can play three games in a week, while O’Shea was only a late inclusion on Saturday.
O’Neill could well decide to give one of the pair a breather and hand Matt Kilgallon a chance, despite his struggles against Bolton veteran Kevin Davies at the Stadium of Light last season.
The same applies to Stephane Sessegnon after the Benin international only returned to training last Thursday.
Sessegnon, another who was superb on Saturday, could be restricted to the bench, with tonight an ideal opportunity for O’Neill to further experiment with the Steven Fletcher/Connor Wickham partnership that helped to spark the comeback at the Reebok Stadium.
There are not likely to be wholesale changes though. O’Neill realises the magnitude of the cup for Sunderland and is taking it suitably seriously.
And after the first game, he knows Bolton are no push-overs.
The Trotters continue to endure a miserable return to the Championship, with the relegation zone closer than the play-offs after Saturday’s draw with Millwall.
But the core of Bolton’s side from the Premier League remains intact and they can head to Wearside with that dangerous commodity of nothing to lose.
Veteran winger Martin Petrov is set to jump ship by joining Espanyol, but Bolton’s team is largely recognisable as the one which suffered last-gasp relegation in May.
There has to be a feeling though that Bolton’s chance has come and gone in this tie.
The prospect of a fourth round encounter against bogey team Everton is hardly an appetising one, but Sunderland will surely wipe their brow with relief at having avoided FA Cup elimination and ensure the job is finished tonight.
Sunderland restored some vigour to their Premier League campaign against the Hammers and can head to Wigan on Saturday with the relegation fears increasingly ebbing away.
They can relax and relish tonight’s game and that should see them triumph, even if a poisoned chalice awaits in the next round.
Verdict: Home win