Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Dons have a goal threat

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FRONTMEN at MK Dons have little excuse this season.

Few clubs throughout the four divisions, let alone in League One, can boast such an array of riches on the training field when it comes to mastering the art of putting the ball in the back of the net.

Between them, assistant manager Mick Harford and part-time forward coach Ian Wright boast 425 league goals, that saw them both earn England recognition.

Ironically, goals were the major problem for the Dons in the opening skirmishes of the campaign with just seven in the first seven games.

That was until Saturday when a 4-1 victory at basement boys Bury proved a watershed moment.

Now the season suddenly has a different complexion to it.

Karl Robinson’s side lie fourth in the table, have conceded just once at stadium:mk and face Sunderland for the first time since the club was rebranded, in hopeful mood of taking their place in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup.

Neither has the Dons’ promising start been reliant on the two big names among their numbers – Alan Smith and Jimmy Bullard.

Smith’s career continues to deteriorate dramatically, the former Newcastle man starting just once in League One so far and that was ended abruptly by a red card after only 19 minutes.

Bullard has been similarly sparingly used after arriving on a free transfer, amid speculation that the knee injury which ruled him out of the Bury game could see him announce his retirement.

The far greater threats to Sunderland tonight come from those who have perennially been integral figures for a side that have become regulars in the play-off mix.

Left-back Dean Lewington, one of just two survivors from the Wimbledon team who last faced Sunderland in 2004, always offers a threat going forward while ex-Ipswich striker Dean Bowditch notched a treble at Gigg Lane on Saturday.

And then there’s former Manchester United wideman Luke Chadwick.

The 31-year-old may be a figure of fun on a par with Stephen Wright, yet he remains a potent threat and will be the chief concern for Sunderland’s back four as he floats in behind the frontmen.

The presence of feasible match-winners like Chadwick is likely to see Martin O’Neill take a conservative stance and follow the example from Sunderland’s second round win over Morecambe by naming a side not too dissimilar to a first-choice XI.

Keiren Westwood is in line for a run-out in place of Simon Mignolet, while Matt Kilgallon looks another likely participant as a replacement for Titus Bramble.

There are clearly concerns over Bramble’s ability to play three games in a week and with Carlos Cuellar still sidelined, O’Neill will understandably want the former Newcastle man available for Saturday’s visit of Wigan.

Neither are Sunderland likely to take any risks on Adam Johnson.

The England international may have featured just once in the Premier League for the Black Cats, yet his importance to the cause has already been evident by Sunderland’s struggles on the counter-attack against both Liverpool and West Ham.

The priority is to get Johnson fit for the Wigan clash and end Sunderland’s search for league victory.

Of those on the fringes, Louis Saha, David Vaughan and David Meyler are all in with a shout of making their first starts of the campaign.

None will necessarily weaken Sunderland’s starting XI to a significant degree and all are in need of competitive minutes.

But then that also applies to several members of O’Neill’s first-choice side, particularly Stephane Sessegnon and Danny Rose, who still require as much time on the field as possible a month into the campaign.

O’Neill will not want to tinker with his side to the extent that Sunderland are unnecessarily weakened though.

He knows this is a very feasible banana skin, one which Sunderland are only going to navigate by a slender margin.

Verdict: Away win