Oxford United v Sunderland AFC: Expert reveals inside track on Karl Robinson's side and the ex-Academy ace
Sunderland will look to build on the wins over Ipswich Town and Rochdale when they travel to Oxford United.
Since the Phil Parkinson-led revival began on December 29, the Black Cats have picked up 20 points and nine places in League One.
Oxford? Six points gained and eight places dropped.
But while one of Oxford’s most high-profile supporters - EFL expert George Elek - admits Sunderland have chosen a “good time” to visit, he argues they won’t be met with a bunch of pushovers.
A spirited comeback at Burton in midweek suggested morale is not lacking for Karl Robinson’s side.
And Elek, who appears regularly on Sky Sports, BBC 5 Live and The Athletic-sponsored “Not The Top 20 Podcast”, insists proof of Oxford’s quality still runs deeper than that.
Not least because the two ”stars” they lost in January – Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste – were not actually key men.
Plus, their recent cup runs have also meant a simple lack of opportunity for Robinson’s men to maintain a League One promotion push.
“Fosu had been out of form for a while and the league performances were not great in January before they left. I think we miss Baptiste, but he was in and out of the team anyway,” says Elek.
“I think with every poor run of form, people both understand how good of a season we’ve had to this point, while also become frustrated that we have managed to fall so quickly.
“The fixture congestion that has come from the cup runs has had more of an impact in my opinion.”
Oxford’s New Year signings also give Elek cause for optimism.
“Liam Kelly is a very good technical player who I’m excited to see more of,“ he says.
“And Marcus Browne has returned to us on loan from Middlesbrough and, despite a poor six months there, looks an even stronger player. He’s too good for League One.
“We really miss Chris Cadden’s creativity from right-back,” says Elek.
“There are a couple of more secrets that I’ll keep to myself, but it’s a good time to play us given the fatigue and knock to our confidence.”
OXFORD’S KEY WEAKNESSES?
“We’re short on confidence – and maybe a bit leggy too,” says Elek.
“We’ve struggled when teams have pressed us high and stuck men on our centre-backs.
“As mentioned before, we miss Cadden’s creativity, and while Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are accomplished defensively, they don’t really offer anything on the overlap.”
OXFORD’S KEY STRENGTHS?
It’s a name unfamiliar to many on Wearside, but Elek points to the form of a former Sunderland Academy product as one to watch.
“Alex Gorrin’s presence in the middle of the park can’t be overstated.
“The whole technical ability of basically the whole team means we are very comfortable keeping the ball.
“We’re hoping our January loan signing, Nathan Holland, will catch fire soon too, and Matt Taylor’s signing from Bristol City really injected quality into the squad.
“This should really be a top seven squad.”