It looks increasingly like Middlesbrough will spend the rest of this season hunting down the second automatic promotion spot in the Championship rather than sweating over their top six chances, so three play-off spots are up for grabs for the rest.
Blackburn, Millwall, and Luton are the current occupants, while Watford, Norwich and West Brom have the quality and depth to threaten afforded by parachute payments, so Coventry and Sunderland’s chances of breaking in look slim.
The longer-term picture is bright for these resurgent big hitters, with the Sky Blues hoping the ownership of Doug King can launch them into an exciting new era, while Sunderland are a far, far smarter club than the one that suffered successive relegations prior to four successive seasons in League One.
For Mark Robins’ side, reaching the play-offs this season looks an outside hope reliant on key marksman Viktor Gyokeres finding top form, while Sunderland are a little closer to the thick of the action – the Wearsiders are one point off the top six, with 13 to play
Back-to-back wins to nil over Millwall and Rotherham have kept the Midlanders’ top six hopes alive, with goals in both for Gyokeres – behind only Chuba Akpom of Middlesbrough in the Championship’s scoring charts, with 14 in the league for the season.
The Sky Blues looked rock solid at the New York Stadium last time out versus Rotherham and, as the game opened up, Gyokeres’ pace and strength came to the fore on counter-attacks once again.
Mark Robins’ side have scored first in 16 of their 32 league games, and won 12 of them, conceding just 9 goals: part of it is having such a steady rearguard of Luke McNally and Callum Doyle’s talent combined with Kyle McFadzean’s experience, but part of it is Gyokeres’ threat in transition.
The deadly Swede loves to drag an unwilling centre-back out wide, win the physical battle and the footrace, then produce a moment of agility and skill on the edge of the box before aiming a shot at goal – often, the longer the game goes on, the more chances he has to do that, if the opponents are chasing a deficit.
Sunderland’s quality in reserve
Coventry have, perhaps, the best striker in the Championship in Gyokeres, but their reliance on the 24-year-old is heavy, whereas Sunderland miss arguably a star individual, yet have the greater attacking depth – especially in the three positions behind the centre-forward in Tony Mowbray’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
The former Blackburn boss can rotate between Amad Diallo, Jack Clarke, Alex Pritchard, Jewison Bennette, Abdoullah Ba and Patrick Roberts, all of whom are more than capable of influencing games at this level.
Roberts was in outstanding form before being rested for the 2-1 loss at Rotherham in midweek and, on that occasion, Tony Mowbray’s call to shuffle the pack didn’t pay off, but the fact he had the confidence to leave out such a high performer implies quality in depth.
On the flip side, the Black Cats arguably miss the kind of destructive presence in midfield that many of their play-off rivals possess.
The tactics board
Sunderland will want to have a solid, combative platform in midfield that allows flair players like Diallo and Roberts to get on the ball in the final third, but that also stops Gyokeres isolating seemingly jaded centre-backs like Danny Batth and Dan Ballard.
As such, Mowbray will need to get his selection right and it could be that one of Dan Neil or Edouard Michut is dropped in favour of the fresh energy of Luke O’Nien.
For Coventry, meanwhile, it’s a case of denying space for the Black Cats’ attacking magicians and hitting Gyokeres early on turnovers, whilst also starting the game with the right intensity.
It could be an open contest: the visitors will want to make the pitch as wide as possible to create space for their stellar technicians, but that might just be how Coventry and Gyokeres want it.
The betting tips
A high-scoring encounter seems likely, seeing as a draw won’t do either side much good for their faint Play-Off hopes. Coventry have found the net in five of their last six league games, while Sunderland haven’t drawn a blank in any of their previous 14. Both Teams To Score is available to back at 17/20 with Paddy Power, and Gyokeres is a tasty 7/5 to find the net anytime.
Anytime Scorer: Viktor Gyokeres @ 7/5 with Paddy Power
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