SUNDERLAND will attempt to strike a "balancing act" when they host Notts County in the last-32 of the Checkatrade Trophy tonight.

Tonight’s game forms part of a hectic December schedule for the Black Cats, with Saturday’s FA Cup draw having added to the fixture congestion.

The second-round replay with Walsall has been provisionally scheduled for next Tuesday, although the date could change if the game is selected for television coverage.

The Checkatrade Trophy is the least important of the three competitions the Black Cats are still involved in, but a victory tonight would leave the club just three wins away from an appearance at Wembley.

As a result, assistant manager James Fowler insists he and Jack Ross will be taking the game seriously, even if it provides a welcome opportunity to continue blooding some of Sunderland’s youngsters.

Jordan Hunter, Jack Diamond, Lee Connelly, Brandon Taylor, Jake Hackett, Jack Bainbridge and Benji Kimpioka have all made their senior debuts in this season’s Checkatrade games.

“It’s been a good competition for us,” said Fowler. “It’s allowed us to progress our young players. I know the idea of allowing Under-21 teams into the competition was to progress their young players, but it’s also important that we do that as well.

“Sunderland has a history of producing their own players, and this competition allows us to mix some of our younger ones with some more experienced players. It’s worked well up until now, and hopefully that continues.

“It’s a balancing act. We want to progress through, but we have to balance that with the amount of games we’ve got coming up. We think the squad is strong enough though, and some people have had to be patient and not had much game time up until now because the boys have been doing so well in the league. It allows them to come in.”

Sunderland (possible, 4-3-3): Ruiter; Matthews, Loovens, Ozturk, Oviedo; O’Nien, Mumba, Hackett; Gooch, Sinclair, Kimpioka.