Stephen Elliott: This is how Lee Johnson should approach Sunderland's play-off semi-final against Lincoln City
‘Only Sunderland could finish fourth in a three-horse race!’
I saw this posted on social media by a Sunderland fan last week, and even though it is the height of gallows humour the harsh reality is that it is very much true.
Like I mentioned last week in my Echo column, the team put together a great run of results which saw them go 11 games unbeaten during February and March, to find themselves within touching distance of automatic promotion.
But as we know that unbeaten run petered out with the team picking up only seven points from a possible 27 during the League One run-in.
This is a very worrying stat heading into the League One play-off semi-finals this week, and one that head coach Lee Johnson and the players need to put to bed by showing they have the resilience within to put things right in the next fortnight.
First up for Sunderland is a trip to Sincil Bank on Wednesday night to take on Lincoln City in the first leg, and for the fourth time overall this season.
Being unbeaten against The Imps in our previous three meetings this season will hopefully fill the squad with confidence, especially as arguably our best performance this season was a 4-0 away win at Lincoln back in December.
The hosts head into the League One play-offs on a run of 15 points from a possible 27 during their own run in of the regular season.
It’s a lot better than what Sunderland have achieved and will probably give them a bit of confidence for the upcoming games.
All in all this really is a toss up for me.
In order to reach the final at Wembley I feel Sunderland need to be on the front foot from the start and get at Lincoln City early.
If they are allowed to settle into the game on Wednesday evening and dominate possession then it could be a long night ahead for the lads.
Sunderland must travel back to Wearside with a fighting chance of going through to the final.
A win would be great, a draw would be fine, and even a one-goal defeat wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Anything worse than that though would be a proverbial mountain to climb, especially considering our patchy home form at the Stadium of Light.
When it comes down to Lee Johnson’s team selection I can’t help think that Chris Maguire could be the key to victory for Sunderland.
Personally I’d like to see him start in the hole behind Charlie Wyke as his guile and creativity will always cause an opposition team problems.
Maguire also has a knack of scoring important goals for the club, and having fired us to Wembley two years ago against Portsmouth I wouldn’t bet against it happening again.
We have a nerve-jangling week ahead, and I’m sure all of our collective fingers will be crossed in the hope that Sunderland can advance to Wembley to take on either Blackpool or Oxford in the League One play-off final.