The four places up for grabs in Sunderland’s Checkatrade Trophy final XI and the factors that will influence selection
After a challenging spell in which Sunderland’s form dipped and Jack Ross was left searching for answers, the Black Cats boss has by and large settled again on a regular shape and structure.
With the Checkatrade Trophy final firmly on the horizon, his starting XI will mostly be set in stone.
The Black Cats boss will be hoping that his international stars come through their schedule unscathed before they return to Wearside next week.
Either way, he still has a few big decisions to make....
The centre-back pairing
Ross admitted after the 2-1 win last weekend that there was not much between his thee main centre-back options.
Tom Flanagan was not particularly convincing but over the course of the season has been the most consistent central defender.
Jack Baldwin has done well since returning to the squad after a patchy run of form, while January signing Jimmy Dunne has in the words of his own manager, been up and down.
While Baldwin offers more in possession, Dunne has been at his best so far when in a physical battle with target-man style strikers.
In recent games Portsmouth boss Kenny Jackett has played both Brett Pitman and Omar Bogle, a presence that may well give Dunne the edge in the selection debate.
The left-back battle
A position in which there are now four realistic contenders.
Reece James made it his own during a long stretch of regular starts, benefiting from injuries to others but also impressing Ross with the consistency of his displays.
As the manager said, James has been neither too low or too high. He might not boast the attacking threat of others, but defensively he has rarely been caught out and has proven an effective foil for Aiden McGeady.
Recent injuries have opened the door however, and even in a short cameo against Walsall Denver Hume showed why he is so highly thought of.
Strong and quick, he also showed excellent delivery in advanced areas earlier in the season.
A potential bolter for the final.
Many supporters would also like to see Bryan Oviedo return to the fold.
It has been a frustrating time for the Costa Rican since a deadline day move to West Brom collapsed, the reasons for his absence since then myriad.
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A practice game this week will see him improve his match fitness, and potentially make him an option for the squad at least.
Ross expects Adam Matthews to be fit after going off with a hamstring injury on Saturday, but it would be a surprise if he edged out three players on their natural side, providing everyone remains fit.
Does the captain come straight back in?
Max Power has been tasked with stepping into the fold since George Honeyman was sent off at Adams Park.
It has been a relatively unfamiliar role for Power, who is used to operating a little deeper in the midfield.
So it would me a major surprise if Ross did not recall his captain, available again after the competition’s bizarre suspension rules were relaxed.
It is a harsh irony for Power that the same rules which forced him to sit out games earlier in the competition now no longer apply, meaning he will likely miss out on a place in the XI at Wembley.
Ross will be pleased to have Honeyman back, conscious of the need for a player who can ensure there is plenty of support for Will Grigg.
Charlie Wyke impressed against Walsall but a final is no time for Ross to rip up his usual structure and go to two up top.
While many will understandably harbour a small hope that Chris Maguire will return, it seems highly unlikely.
He is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a broken fibula, but the final will come five weeks into a six to eight week recevoery period, and with eight absolutely vital league games to play in April, Maguire will surely not be risked unless fully fit.
Who lines up opposite McGeady?
Aiden McGeady has been one of Sunderland’s star performers this season, a constant menace from the left flank.
Who lines up on the other side is a big question for Ross ahead of the Wembley final.
Lynden Gooch has been his first choice for much of the season, and after an indifferent spell looked somewhere back to his best against Walsall, bringing some much needed intensity as the Black Cats pushed for a winner.
Lewis Morgan missed a handful of chances before being taken off in that game, but his ability in one on one situations is outstanding and Ross said he was generally pleased with his performance.
Whoever get the nod, the player to miss out will almost certainly be one of the first players off the bench and their contribution could well prove to be key.