Sunderland unexpectedly crashed the play-off party on the final day with a 3-0 thumping of Preston North End and are looking to make it back-to-back promotions, after their League One success at Wembley this time last year. It would be a remarkable rise, one that matches the speed of their fall from the Premier League in 2017.
But do they have a chance against Luton Town - the side that finished in third, eleven points ahead of the Black Cats? Statistically, history is against them. Nobody in the past ten years has qualified for the play-offs with fewer points than Sunderland and in ten of the past twelve seasons, the team that has finished third has progressed to the play-off final.
They are certainly underdogs heading into this tie, and injuries haven’t made life easy for Tony Mowbray. Both first choice centre-backs Dan Ballard and Danny Batth have been ruled out with late-season injuries, meaning the gaffer has had to cobble together a back four.
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Utility man and all-round sh*thouse Luke O’Nien has slotted into the centre of defence well, while Trai Hume at just 21 has moved into the heart of defence from right-back. So far he has equipped himself well but there is a sense that his inexperience could be exploited by the elite attackers of this division.
Then we come to the full-back areas. Dennis Cirkin has been a revelation as an attacking left-back but had to come off injured against PNE on the final day. As did right-back Lyden Gooch, who has been placed into that position out of necessity, but it has actually offered Sunderland a dangerous attacking presence on the right-hand side.
Mowbray is hopeful that the pair will be fit enough to start at the Stadium of Light, but there are no guarantees with the boss keeping his cards close to his chest. “I think I’m the only fit centre back at the club,” he smiled when talking to journalists about the injury issues. Just as with Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms, Mowbray is happy to roll with the punches.
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But against Luton, his patchwork back four will be tested. Carlton Morris and Elijah Adebayo were both rested on the final day and will come into this semi-final fresh and fighting fit. Morris may have taken the goalscoring acclaim for the Hatters have hit 20 goals this term since his £2m summer move from Barnsley, but Adebayo is also such a handful.
Both are physically capable of battling with any defender in the division, while Sunderland’s young defence could be bullied by this ferocious front two. They’ve got the experience, the goalscoring ability and the nous to tear Sunderland apart, but it is unlikely to be an end-to-end tie.
Luton boast the second best defensive record in the league and are rock-solid at the back. 39 goals conceded across a 46-game regular season is remarkable, and Rob Edward’s back three of Sonny Bradley, Tom Lockyer and Amari'i Bell has no noticeable weaknesses.
Alfie Doughty is an attacking outlet from the left and Cody Drameh from Leeds United has helped them solidify things at right wing-back. But despite the wall being laid out in front of them from this defensively resolute side, Sunderland will not be disheartened.
Their young squad, the youngest in the division, has match-winners dotted all over the pitch in attacking areas. Patrick Roberts and Amad Diallo, two left-footers than love cutting in from the right often mean the overload the right-hand side of the pitch, while Jack Clarke from the opposite wing isn’t frightened of a long-range strike. All three of their goals against PNE came from outside the box and they have exciting players that aren’t afraid to try their luck from range.
Alex Pritchard may be more experienced than his teammates but he is still quality on the ball while Clarke has been a standout this year. Joe Gelhardt has also fitted into a now fluid attacking unit, that has surprisingly become even better since star man Stewart was ruled out for the season.
Luton are one of the most difficult sides to play against at this level. They will relish knockout football. But Sunderland have match-winners that can change the game at the drop of a hat, and they will be backed by a huge number of supporters at the Stadium of Light. Injuries could cost them dear though, as they face a Luton team who have the experience and knowledge, to take themselves to Wembley.