Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday: Behind enemy lines - Inside track on Black Cats as Owls prepare for play-off battle

Sheffield Wednesday face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Friday – but what can they expect from the Black Cats?
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It’s a clash of the giants over two legs as the Black Cats and the Owls face off for a spot in the 2021/22 League One play-off final, and both teams go into the games in a good run of form, losing just one of their last 20 matches between them – Friday night's hosts, however, are unbeaten in 13, while Darren Moore's side fell to Wycombe Wanderers last month.

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We spoke to Joe Nicholson, from the Sunderland Echo, to get a better idea of the challenge that Wednesday will be up against when they head up to the North East this weekend.

Here’s what he had to say...

What has Sunderland’s form been like heading into the play-offs?

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Very good. Alex Neil took charge in the middle of February and has lost just once in 15 matches- in his second game at home to MK Dons.

The team are on a 13-match unbeaten run and have averaged exactly two points per game since Neil’s appointment, which is very impressive given he’s working with a squad which was built under Lee Johnson’s management.

Ross Stewart has been a huge player for Sunderland - and has already scored against Sheffield Wednesday this season.Ross Stewart has been a huge player for Sunderland - and has already scored against Sheffield Wednesday this season.
Ross Stewart has been a huge player for Sunderland - and has already scored against Sheffield Wednesday this season.

Sunderland have had to rely on a couple of late goals but that can also been seen as a strength, giving the side real confidence and belief.

We’ve heard a lot about Ross Stewart - but just how important is he and who are the other players to watch?

Stewart has replaced the goals that Charlie Wyke scored for Sunderland last season, while the Scot’s all-round play has been impressive.

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He’s good in the air and effective running into the channels, yet his form has dipped recently, scoring just twice in his last 11 matches.

When Stewart has played alongside Nathan Broadhead up front chances have often dropped to the latter. The Everton loanee is a big injury doubt for the match and would be a big loss.

After a tough start to the season captain Corry Evans has been a key player under Neil in midfield, while Bailey Wright and Danny Batth provide experience and physicality at the back.

How would you sum up the job Alex Neil has done this season

Confidence was on the floor when Neil took charge. The side had been thrashed 6-0 at Bolton and were beaten by Doncaster and Chetenham following Johnson’s sacking.

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Neil has turned the situation around in a short space of time and with little margin for error given how competitive League One has been this season.

After talk of Roy Keane returning to Sunderland in February it looked like whoever took charge would be an underwhelming appointment. Many supporters have been impressed by Neil so far, though.

What formation will Wednesday play and how will they approach the game?

Neil has often changed his formation and personnel depending on the opposition but has predominantly played with a 3-5-2 system.

There is a lack of full-backs in the squad so the Scot has been forced to play wingers, or even central midfielders, on the flanks.

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In Sunderland’s last home game against Rotherham, which finished 1-1, there was a feeling that Neil went a little too defensive as the visitors dominated the first half.

It will be interesting to see how he approaches the first leg on Friday.

Do you think Sunderland can go up through the play-offs and why?

I think the Wednesday tie is a really close one to call and would make whoever comes through it favourites in the final.

I think Neil will give Sunderland a very good chance of winning promotion. He has taken Norwich up through the Championship play-offs and has made this Sunderland side very tough to beat.

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While the Black Cats played some nice football under Johnson, there was a feeling they could be bullied at times and collapse, like they did at Hillsborough in November.

You don’t get the feeling that will happen under Neil, while the team are also coming into the play-offs with momentum.

Can you have a go at a predicted line-up?

Patterson; Wright, Batth, Doyle; Gooch, Evans, Matete, Clarke; Pritchard, Embleton; Stewart

It’s hard to predict as Neil hasn’t named the same starting XI once.

Dennis Cirkin, Carl Winchester and Broadhead would all probably start but are injury doubts.