Simon Grayson has made his mind up on the Sunderland XI that will kick off the Championship campaign against Derby County tonight (7.45pm).
The Black Cats boss, as he has had to do throughout pre-season, will have weighed up the need to be competitive immediately against the desire to pick players eager to stay beyond the transfer window.
The balance of his side will be his biggest call, having tested a number of different systems in pre-season.
Our Sunderland writers have watched the pre-season unfold and have picked the XI they think is best placed to secure three crucial points against Gary Rowett’s side.
Ruiter; Jones, Browning, O’Shea, Galloway; McGeady, Cattermole, Ndong, Khazri; Grabban, Vaughan
Jason Steele is likely to start in goal, but it would be a shame not to see Robbin Ruiter start. He looked so composed in his trial games and there are no doubts he could handle it.
Elsewhere, it is all about getting the balance of the side right.
Simon Grayson will very possibly be tempted to play Darron Gibson as the defensive anchor and go with one up front, but Sunderland’s most convincing performance came in the first half against Bradford when James Vaughan and Josh Maja played up front.
Wahbi Khazri has excelled roaming infield from the left flank in pre-season and, regardless of whether he leaves or not, it is a position where he can really damage teams on the counter-attack.
By playing Lewis Grabban off the target man and Aiden McGeady on the right, Grayson can send out a side with a number of attacking threats and, crucially, a number of players who can carry the ball and take players on when Sunderland break.
The biggest concern with this side is that defensively it looks vulnerable.
None of McGeady, Grabban or Khazri are likely to spend a great deal of time tracking back and that could leave Sunderland’s full-backs, who have not looked particularly convincing in pre-season, very exposed.
Grayson may well see value in using someone like George Honeyman off one flank to add that balance.
Playing two in midfield will likely give Derby a numerical advantage in the heart of the pitch, but Cattermole and Ndong have the legs to do the running of three players.
Steele; Jones, Browning, Kone, Galloway, Gibson, Cattermole, Ndong, McGeady, Grabban, Vaughan.
On the evidence of pre-season games, Robbin Ruiter would be my No.1 pick, but Simon Grayson has already warned he is unlikely to be thrown in against Derby having missed a fair chunk of training prior to signing a two-year deal.
The responsibility of starting the season in goal, therefore, will land with Steele, who must be desperate to put his Celtic nightmare quickly behind him.
With Bryan Oviedo still injured, the full-backs currently pick themselves, with Billy Jones on the right and Brendan Galloway on the left offering the best balance. Grayson’s biggest headache will come in central defence.
Does he risk playing Lamine Kone after his dismal showing against Celtic or restore experienced organiser John O’Shea?
Kone has regularly played alongside Tyias Browning – the best defender so far – this pre-season and it would be no surprise to see that partnership maintained, though the level of communication between the pair needs a huge improvement.
Controversially, it wouldn’t surprise me if Grayson moves to shore up his midfield by bringing in Darron Gibson, fresh from the controversy surrounding his video outburst, in the holding midfield role.
Gibson certainly has a point to prove. It would be a risk, with the spotlight firmly on him.
It would, though, allow Lee Cattermole and Didier Ndong to have more of an impact further up the pitch, with support in wide areas from the interchanging Aiden McGeady and Lewis Grabban supporting James Vaughan.
Wahbi Khazri was underwhelming against Celtic before going off with an ankle knock. A good performance in a big game in front of the television cameras would boost his chances of a move this summer.
But it wouldn’t surprise to see him start on the bench. A huge night awaits.