With the regular season across the EFL having come to a conclusion, there are now just 12 teams with something left to play for in the battle for the those final promotion places.
In EFL League One the play-offs got underway on Tuesday night with Oxford United losing at home to Blackpool. However, perhaps more intrigue comes from the game the following evening.
Five years ago, Lincoln City had just managed their fifth straight bottom half finish in the National League, whilst Sunderland had completed their ninth straight season in the Premier League.
Now they meet in the play-off semi-finals in the culmination of a season’s worth of work, to decide who will get a shot at a place in the EFL Championship.
Lincoln boss Michael Appleton has lost goalkeeper Alex Palmer to a concussion less than 24 hours before the game. The on-loan shot stopper has played all 46 league games this season, but will be replaced by emergency loan Josef Bursik for the first leg at least. Adam Jackson is unlikely to start, as making a return off the bench on the final day is his only appearance in the last seven games.
In the other camp, Sunderland manager Lee Johnson will be without defender Dion Sanderson whose season is likely over due to a back issue. Although fellow centre-back Tom Flanagan could make the bench, having missed the last two months through injury. Both Grant Leadbitter and Aiden McGeady are likely to start after being rested on the final day.
(4-3-3) Bursik, Poole, Eyoma, Walsh, Edun, McGrandles, Bridcutt, Grant, Johnson, Hopper, Rogers.
(4-3-3) Burge, Power, Wright, O’Nein, Hume, Scowen, Leadbitter, Jones, Gooch, McGeady, Wyke.
Lincoln head into the game having picked up just two points from their final three games, which finished in a goalless draw with AFC Wimbledon. However, a win wasn’t required in any of those matches to secure a play-off place due to four wins out of five before that, with all four victories also coming with a clean sheet. Home form is something the Imps have struggled with this season, winning just twice at Sincil Bank since January, so they will be aiming to put that right when they welcome fans back on Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile Sunderland also drew their final game of the season with relegated Northampton Town, a result that meant the Black Cats won just one of their final nine games of the season. That stuttering form saw them lose their grasp on an automatic promotion place, which looked like a real possibility after seven wins from eight before that. The one victory in that run was over Plymouth Argyle in their last away game, so they will be hoping to make it a second successive away triumph on Wednesday.
Ones to watch
When you think of key players for Lincoln this season, names such as Jorge Grant and Brennan Johnson will come to mind, but arguably, none have been as crucial as their captain Liam Bridcutt. City’s dips in form this season have normally coincided with Bridcutt being out injured, showing the importance of the former Sunderland man who joined in January 2020. He commands well, imposes himself on games, and breaks up the play, allowing his teammates to grab the headlines. Facing his former club in such a important game will provide an extra incentive for him as well.
In terms of Sunderland’s attacking threat, people will think of Charlie Wyke for goals and McGeady for assists, but wideman Lynden Gooch has been a crucial part of their side this season too. The American has four goals and nine assists so far, which is a total number of contributions only bettered by Wyke and McGeady. Lincoln may be focusing much of their pre-match preparations on nullifying the threat of the other two, which could provide Gooch with the chance he needs to shine, swinging the game for his side.
These sides have met three times already this season, with Sunderland winning 4-0 at Lincoln in December. They then met in the EFL Trophy semi-finals, drawing 1-1 at the Stadium of Light before a win on penalties for the north-east side. That was the followed by another 1-1 draw at Sunderland in the league, meaning that Lincoln will be looking for their first win over their opponents this season. The Imps’ last win against them came in October 2019, where a Tyler Walker brace saw Appleton pick up his first win as Lincoln manager, a result he will be hoping to replicate here.
How to watch
The game is available to watch on Sky Sports football, which kicks off at 18:00 BST. 3,145 Lincoln fans will also be in attendance for the first time in over 14 months.
What the managers have said
Lincoln manager Michael Appleton talked to Lincolnshire Live ahead of the game, believing that he is close to deciding how his side must approach the tie. He said:
“I’m pretty close if I’m being honest.
“We’ve played Sunderland three times already and we’ve watched a bit more of their footage over the last few weeks, getting an idea of what they’re about.
“The more I watch that, the more I’m swaying towards one way, how I’m going to start.”
In the other dugout, Sunderland boss Lee Johnson spoke to local journalists, anticipating a good game, which his team needs to see through. He said:
“We’re looking forward to it very much, against a side we believe are a good side, and they’ve always been good games.
“It seems like a long time ago (the December fixture), there’s obviously a lot gone on since then.
“I thinks the boys have put in a sterling effort, and it can’t stop now. We’ve got three games, hopefully, to make sure we put in big efforts.”