How Lincoln City and Sunderland are shaping up and the key selection clues from their previous meetings

Lee Johnson had not had much time to process the prospect of facing Lincoln City in the play-off semi finals, but his first words were telling all the same.

Thursday, 13th May 2021, 12:30 pm

Looking ahead to those crucial games after the 1-1 draw with Northampton Town, Johnson spoke of his respect and admiration for Michael Appleton's side.

Tellingly, he noted that their best XI is 'right up there with the very best in the division'.

It's a point worth dwelling on when you look at Lincoln City's campaign.

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Grant Leadbitter scores against Lincoln City in the Papa John's Trophy
Grant Leadbitter scores against Lincoln City in the Papa John's Trophy

In the early stages of the campaign their results were exceptional, but their top-two hopes were significantly dented by the impact of key injuries and COVID-19.

For the Papa John's Trophy semi final clash between the two, for example, Appleton named only five substitutes.

Ahead of the play-offs, though, Lincoln are back virtually at full strength.

"It’s amazing, isn’t it," Appleton said after the 0-0 draw with AFC Wimbledon.

"You get to the final game of the season and it’s the first time you’ve got a fully fit squad.

"It’s a great opportunity for everybody. I feel for players who have missed out today but someone is going to miss out against Sunderland, that’s just how it is. It’s a squad game now, it’s not about 11 players.”

The impact of those returning players on Appleton's side is obvious.

Brennan Johnson a loanee from Nottingham Forest, has been one of their key attacking outlets and in midfield, the return of Liam Bridcutt and Jorge Grant brings both experience and quality.

The return of Joe Walsh also allows him to move closer to naming his strongest defence.

Johnson's inference was clear. The head coach is bullish about his side's chances but Appleton's side are not one to be taken lightly.

The head coach was also asked how much he would take from the three games between the two across the current campaign.

Sunderland, of course, are unbeaten against Appleton's side.

"You consider everything, all the history," Johnson said.

"At the same time, you've got to assess the opposition in their recent games and also be honest with where you are as a team and as a squad.

"There's a lot of people in different places, mentally and physically, for both teams.

"But it's a big game and that's what we're in this for, and we'll approach it with energy and enthusiasm.

"I think by it's nature, the first game could take quite an edgy start, or it could be quite open.

"But you can be fairly assured that the second leg will be very open and I think that, we've got a big pitch here and we want to play to our strengths. To do that, getting a crowd back is a really exciting thing.

"We all want that feeling, that buzz. We've missed them."

Johnson's biggest calls will mostly be around match fitness.

Ross Stewart has suffered a grade two hamstring injury, but the club are hoping that he will be able to play some part in a behind-closed-doors friendly at the Academy of Light on Friday.

The same applies to Tom Flanagan, who made his return for the U23s on Monday, playing 45 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Stoke City.

Flanagan's return would give Johnson the option of moving Luke O'Nien into central midfield, but he is also acutely aware of the risk of introducing the defender before he is ready in such a high-pressure game.

That pace and agility of the Lincoln frontline is also a key factor in that regard, and will also be a key factor in whether Johnson deems Conor McLaughlin to be ready for a start.

The Northern Irishman has featured in both recent league games but playing against Johnson is one of the division's toughest briefs for a full-back and Johnson will know that his right-back will have to be at their sharpest.

Though Johnson cautioned against reading too much into the games between the two this season, there are some broad themes that will no doubt guide the thinking of both managers.

Johnson has been a key attacking outlet this season, and the arrival of Morgan Rogers on loan from Manchester City in January has only strengthened their threat in wide areas.

So impressive have the two been, that joint top scorer Anthony Scully is far from guaranteed a place in the XI.

Callum Morton, on loan from West Brom, showed his quality in the recent fixture at the Stadium of Light with a superb solo goal as he spun away from Luke O'Nien.

Unsurprisingly, Lincoln City's counter-attacking threat has meant that in all three of the games between the two this season, Sunderland have dominated possession (60.6%, 54% and 58% respectively).

That the two teams are finely balanced is reflected in the fact that despite not winning any of the three contests, Lincoln City's expected goals tally was superior in both games at the Stadium of Light (1.58 v 0.88 & 0.94 v 0.58 respectively).

Though Sunderland were dominant at the LNER Stadium in December, the hosts missed two gilt-edged chances to take the lead in the opening exchanges.

On all three occasions, Johnson has opted to play with a genuine holding midfielder.

The head coach has said that his preferred formation in the long run is a 4-3-3, but injuries and availability have meant for the most part he has picked either a number ten or a genuine second striker.

Not so against Lincoln, who he has always matched up like-for-like against.

Grant Leadbitter has played all three games, a nod perhaps to Lincoln's ability to hurt teams on the counter.

Sunderland will rightly take a lot of confidence from their record against Appleton's side this season, but those contests underline how tight these contests are likely to be. Neither side finished the season in strong form, but both will feel that as they edge closer to full fitness, they have every chance of progressing.

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