Sunderland earn their Spurs in Hong Kong

Sunderland's Wes Brown, second left, celebrates with team-mates after he scored a goal during a match against Tottenham Hotspur.
Sunderland's Wes Brown, second left, celebrates with team-mates after he scored a goal during a match against Tottenham Hotspur.

PRE-SEASON is supposed to be a time for experimentation; a chance to tinker with tactics or thrust a player into unfamiliar surroundings.

But Paolo Di Canio has neither the time nor the luxury to create off-shoots from the blueprint he has created for Sunderland.

With the club yet to finalise any friendlies for the fortnight after they return from Hong Kong, the skeletal pre-season schedule makes every minute together precious for this drastically revamped side.

Di Canio clearly realises as much.

There were no wholesale half-time substitutions or a blend of first-teamers and fringe players being thrust together in the horrifyingly humid Hong Kong Stadium yesterday.

With the resources available to him, Di Canio more or less gave his first-choice XI an opportunity together after the monsoon rains eventually subsided on a delayed and shortened Barclays Asia Trophy semi-final.

Yes, there is a case for Keiren Westwood to be included in goal at the expense of Vito Mannone.

And if Di Canio can secure the pair of full-backs and creative midfielder that he wants before the transfer window shuts, then they would surely be in the starting XI too.

But with those three signings still eluding him and Steven Fletcher continuing his recovery from injury, Di Canio astutely used the encounter to name arguably his strongest side.

On this evidence, if it’s still his strongest side come August 17 against Fulham, then Sunderland can go into their Premier League opener with plenty of optimism.

Yes, pre-season is a notoriously unreliable barometer, blah, blah, blah.

But this was was undoubtedly a dramatically more impressive display than anything Sunderland have managed in either of the last two summers and look what happened in the two subsequent seasons those years.

Despite at times farcical conditions, Sunderland tried to play some neat football, and going forwards, there was an awareness and intelligence to the Black Cats.

The predictability of the Martin O’Neill reign had gone.

Di Canio’s players were looking for angles, trying to find space and mix-up their approach play to get in behind Spurs’ defence.

That was a regular occurrence after the hour mark in the 80-minute game, with Sunderland’s superior fitness work clearly telling.

But it was the performances of the new boys which was genuinely encouraging.

Vito Mannone received a rollicking in the first half from Craig Gardner for hesitating to a back-pass, yet the Italian keeper redeemed himself with two superb stops after the break to deny Emmanuel Adebayor and then Jermain Defoe.

Jozy Altidore may have spurned a cluster of chances to find the net – including an air shot which had the home crowd chuckling – but at least he was in the right positions.

And considering he had suffered a bereavement – as the Echo reveals today – there was more than sufficient evidence of the power and pace he will inject into Sunderland’s attack next season.

Emanuele Giaccherini looks like a clone of Steed Malbranque, yet with the added addition of proving more than willing to track back ceaselessly.

Di Canio believes the Italian international could be a real hit at Sunderland and it’s easy to see why, with the first touch and knack of picking pockets of space blindingly evident, even if yesterday was the sluggish tempo of pre-season.

Cabral was signed as a midfield enforcer and his combative style will inevitably earn the attention of referees next season.

But the Bosman arrival can play a bit too, converting his equaliser with real class and also looking for positives balls forward, not just resorting to the defensive midfielder’s sanctity of going backwards or sideways.

At 19, David Moberg Karlsson looks like he harbours genuine potential and was certainly not going through the motions for an impressive 16-minute outing, that included one goal and one assist.

And then there was Wes Brown.

It’s cliched to say the former England international is like a new signing.

But he genuinely is.

Brown looked like he would need the heeling hands of a prophet to resurrect his career after more than a year on the sidelines, where he couldn’t even complete a full training session without breaking down again.

But the 33-year-old’s quality has never been in doubt.

If – and it’s still an almighty if – Brown can stay fit, it is a huge boost to Di Canio’s defensive options.

Sunderland’s players were genuinely delighted to see the centre-half head the Black Cats into the lead and he rightly took the headlines for an impressive comeback after Spurs had gained the advantage with their first genuine effort of the game, 12 minutes before the interval.

Kyle Walker burst beyond Giaccherini down the right-hand side of the area and picked out Gylfi Sigurdsson 12 yards out, whose shot took a wicked deflection off John O’Shea and nestled in the corner with Mannone stranded.

Yet after Altidore almost latched onto the lively Stephane Sessegnon’s scuffed shot, Sunderland drew level.

Altidore pounced on a slack piece of control from Sunderland summer target Tom Huddlestone and played a first-time pass into the path of the onrushing Cabral.

The former Basel midfielder carried the ball to the edge of the area, while holding off the challenge of Huddlestone, before sweeping it elegantly into the far corner.

Sunderland should have taken the lead within two minutes of the re-start, but Altidore couldn’t make any connection to Adam Johnson’s downward header from six yards out.

The American had another opportunity moments later when managed to find a yard for himself from Giaccherini’s pull-back, but then saw his shot drift wide of the far post.

After Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen was stretchered off with an ankle injury, Di Canio’s men had Mannone to thank in the 55th minute for retaining parity when he superbly tipped Adebayor’s attempted chip over the bar.

And the Italian was alert again on the hour mark after ex-Sunderland loanee Danny Rose’s cross from the left fell to Defoe 10 yards out.

The England striker’s left-footed shot on the turn had some zip behind it, but Mannone managed to get his body in the way.

It proved a turning point, as Sunderland were to take the lead two minutes later when Moberg Karlsson’s corner from the right was bustled into the net at the far post by Brown’s diving header.

From then, there was only winner – Sessegnon getting the wrong side of the Spurs defence to Cabral’s ball over the top and then squaring to Altidore, whose shot was brilliantly pushed behind by fellow countryman Brad Friedel.

The American stopper kept out El-Hadji Ba’s shot from the resulting corner and then produced a jaw-dropping parry to keep out Connor Wickham’s header, from the substitute’s first touch.

But the clinching third finally did arrive in the last minute when Sessegnon hooked the ball in behind for Moberg Karlsson, who raced clear and coolly placed a cushioned shot into the far corner.

Fittingly, it was a new signing who secured Sunderland’s place in Saturday’s Barclays Asia Trophy final against Manchester City.

It is still too early to decide whether the new boys will signal a new dawn.

But on first impressions, there was plenty to suggest Di Canio’s revolution could be a successful one.

SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Gardner, Brown (Roberge 77), O’Shea, Colback, Johnson (Moberg Karlsson 62), Larsson (Ba 62), Cabral, Giaccherini (McClean 78), Sessegnon, Altidore (Wickham 74). Subs not used: Pickford, Westwood, Vaughan, Mandron, Cuellar.

SPURS: Gomes (Friedel 41), Walker, Caulker (Vertonghen 41, Fryers 50), Dawson, Rose, Lennon (Defoe 41), Parker, Huddlestone (Carroll 70), Dempsey (Townsend 70), Sigurdsson, Adebayor. Subs not used: Lloris, Naughton, Assou-Ekotto.