In a repeat of last season's FA Cup Fourth Round draw, Sunderland and local rivals Middlesbrough have again been pitted against one another, with a spot in the final eight of the Capital One League Cup up for grabs. Despite being a division lower than their hosts, the visiting Teesiders will bring a stiff test to the Stadium of Light once again, coming in on the back of a five game unbeaten run.
Sunderland Team News
Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill has remained notably coy in the lead-up to this game, hinting at injuries to some of his players but refusing to name names. With such secrecy leaving it difficult to determine who may miss out for injury reasons, we are left with speculation over who O'Neill could seek to use in order to simply shake things up.
One safe bet seems to be the return of Stephane Sessegnon, fresh from his stint on the bench at Stoke on Saturday. We'd expectPhil Bardsley to line up at right-back too, a move likely to leave Craig Gardner to move into midfield alongside captainLee Cattermole. If Seb Larsson is preferred at right midfield - as some are hinting - both James McClean and Jack Colback will miss out.
Middlesbrough Team News
Tony Mowbray has a few decisions to make ahead of his side's short trip up the A19 to Wearside. Jonathan Woodgate, who joined the club for a second time in the summer, missed out on Saturday's victory over Bolton with a thigh injury. With Woodgate not certain to have recovered in time for this evening, Seb Hines is likely to continue in central defence. That 2-1 win over Bolton also saw striker Marvin Emnes hobble off with barely twenty minutes played, leaving him as another doubt - though, given that his replacement Scott McDonald scored each of 'boro's goals, Mowbray may not be too worried by this.
Luke Williams, Kevin Thomson, Rhys Williams, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Mustapha Carayol and Curtis Main all remain in the treatment room. Josh McEachran, on loan from Chelsea, is ineligible.
Sunderland: Mignolet; Bardsley, Cuellar, O'Shea, Rose; Larsson, Gardner, Cattermole, Johnson; Sessegnon; Fletcher
Middlesbrough: Steele; Parnaby, Hines, Amougou, Friend; Haroun, Leadbitter, Smallwood, Reach; Miller, McDonald
Key Matchup: Lee Cattermole vs Grant Leadbitter
This may seem a strange one. With the abundance of creative players at Sunderland's disposal, one would think more important match-ups would see the likes of Sessegnon and Johnson paired off against Middlesbrough defenders. But, with none of Martin O'Neill's flair players firing this season, and not yet looking like doing so, a key encounter tonight will be how Lee Cattermole deals with Middlesbrough's own livewire.
Describing Grant Leadbitter as a creative midfielder may cause some Sunderland fans to scoff, but this term has seen him grow into exactly that at his new club. In Middlesbrough's opening League Cup game this season at Bury, Leadbitter contributed both a goal and an assist from central midfield. Indeed, he has contributed seven assists in fourteen games so far for the Teesiders. With Josh McEachran ineligible, Leadbitter is the man most likely to produce something in central areas for the visitors, and it will be Cattermole's job to nullify his very real threat.
Recent Form: DWWWW
Draw: Middlesbrough 2-2 Derby County (Jutkiewicz 19, 81; Robinson 16 (pen), Coutts 87)
Win: Watford 1-2 Middlesbrough (Deeney 1; Emnes 30, McDonald 77)
Win: Brighton and Hove Albion 0-1 Middlesbrough (Emnes 21)
Win: Middlesbrough 2-0 Hull City (Haroun 59, Miller 66)
Win: Middlesbrough 2-1 Bolton Wanderers (McDonald 67, 85; Lee 42)
Last Time Around: Middlesbrough 1-2 Sunderland, 07/02/12
In a strange quirk of fate, the last time these two sides met also came three days after Martin O'Neill's Sunderland had visited Stoke City. Back in February it was a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup that was at stake - Tony Mowbray's side having forced a replay at the Riverside after securing a 1-1 draw on Wearside.
For the second time in as many weeks, the gap in divisions between the two sides was scarcely evident. Middlesbrough pushed their Premier League visitors all the way and, having arguably shaded the first half, found themselves stunned to be a goal down at the break - courtesy of Jack Colback's sumptuous volley into the top corner. Lukas Jutkiewicz pounced on a loose ball to restore the balance, forcing the tie into extra-time, where the home side again looked more threatening. Yet Sunderland's quality (eventually) shone through, as Stephane Sessegnon fired home with eight minutes remaining, propelling his side into a fifth round tie with Arsenal at the Stadium of Light eleven days later.
The Ref: Phil Dowd
The 49-year-old from Staffordshire has yet to officiate either side this season but, in his nine games so far, he has awarded no fewer than five penalties (two in the same game, during West Brom's opening day 3-0 win over Liverpool). Sunderland certainly have experiences of Mr Dowd's penalty decisions: it was he who awarded Manchester City a spot kick in Sunderland's visit there in March, when he harshly judged Craig Gardner to have fouled Edin Dzeko. Dowd was perhaps evening things up from earlier in the season, as he had given the Black Cats a penalty at Wolves back in December 2011, on an occasion where Seb Larsson was widely seen as having dived.
That trip to The Etihad was the last time Sunderland have been officiated by Dowd, but tonight's visitors must go back much further for the last time he oversaw one of their games. That was way back in April 2009, as they overcame hull City 3-1 at the Riverside. This was also the last time Middlesbrough won a game in the Premier League, as they would go on to suffer relegation a month later.
What The Managers Said
We might have to make some changes to our side - a couple of them forced. We'll see how the injuries are later on but we've got a couple of players with a few problems.
We'll go as strongly as we possibly can and try to win the game.
It's a difficult call - you want to get through.
Of course you want some players who've had less time in the last few weeks to get onto the field of play, but it's a tough balancing act.
The most important issue is to try and win the game.
Sunderland will be a difficult game, we know that.
They had a great result away at Stoke because that is a tough place to go.
They showed how hard-working they are, how resilient they are, how organised they are, and so we will have to be at our best to beat them.
They will fancy it on the day. They are at home and up against a team from a lower league so they will start as favourites.
However, we will go there and try to do what we have been doing and try to win the game.
We will look to make the game tight for long periods and look to create chances and try to take one and maybe sneak something.
We go there with a bit of momentum, good form, and with a few players in great form and thinking we can cause them problems.
Roker Report Predicts
For those hoping this tie will provide Sunderland with a respite from their stuttering start - at least in an attacking sense - to their Premier League season, think again. Tony Mowbray's Middlesbrough gave a good account of themselves in their two FA Cup ties with the Wearsiders last season, and look to have improved further still this time around. They will come into the game full of confidence, boasting four consecutive victories and a five game unbeaten streak.
Still, Mowbray will rue the possible depletion of his squad. If Jonathan Woodgate is unable to recover in time this will strip the Teesiders of a defender who could easily by plying his trade at the top level; the possible loss of Emnes, even in spite of Scott McDonald's goalscoring form, could also disrupt 'boro's preparations.
Sunderland should view this game as an opportunity, though. As his record both on Wearside and at other clubs suggest, Martin O'Neill has a penchant for cup competitions, something he seems able to transmit to his players. He will hope that his midfield finally begins to click into gear this evening and, if it does, a quarter-final berth is well within his side's grasp.