GUSTAVO POYET has challenged Santiago Vergini to force his way into Sunderland's Capital One Cup final plans by shackling the most potent strike force in the Premier League.
Having come off the bench to make his first top-flight appearance at the weekend, Vergini will make his maiden Premier League start against Manchester City tonight in place of the suspended Wes Brown.
This evening's game is a dress rehearsal for next month's Capital One Cup final between the same two teams, and while Brown and John O'Shea have formed Sunderland's first-choice defensive pairing for most of the last three months, Poyet insists his Wembley plans are not yet set in stone.
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Some decent performances in the next few matches could have major repercussions in terms of the starting line-up for the final, with Vergini finding himself with an unexpected opportunity to press his claims.
CITY DEBUT: Santiago Vergini alongside Jose Altidore
“I know my team for this game (against Manchester City), but I don't know my cup final team,” said the Sunderland manager. “I don't know how the players are going to be from now until then, and how good the new players will be. A lot can happen between now and then.
“This is a good chance for Santiago, and he has been waiting for a chance like this. We always say you have to be ready because you never know when an opportunity like this might come around.
“He has to hit the ground running, but it is the best way, especially with the mentality he's got. I brought him in, and I'm convinced he's going to be all right.
“It's a nice game for us to find out. A nice pitch, with nice opposition, and at least there's going to be no (Sergio) Aguero! I'm relaxed about him, and I'm not bothered about that side of things.”
Vergini signed a season-long loan when he left Argentinian side Estudiantes last month, with his full registration still belonging to Uruguayan club Atletico Fenix.
The complexity of his ownership arrangement meant a loan was simpler to conclude in the limited time available during the January transfer window, but Poyet admits he is already considering a permanent switch in the summer.
That will be dependent on Sunderland avoiding relegation and Vergini impressing in the final four months of the current campaign, and from watching the defender in action in South America, Poyet is confident the 25-year-old boasts the skills required to succeed in English football.
“I think it's easier for defenders to adapt and fit in,” he said. “The way they play doesn't change too much, you need to be able to see danger and make tackles, although it's probably more important to also be good in the air in England.
“It's not always possible, and it depends on the qualities (of the player), but if you have the opportunity to bring someone in for six months and see how they do, it's the perfect situation.
“Sometimes, it's not possible and you need to sign them straight away, but this is a great opportunity and, one way or the other, he will show us what he can do.”
While Manchester City have been sweeping all before them for most of the season, last weekend's goalless draw with Norwich was the second game in succession in which Manuel Pellegrini's side have failed to score.
Norwich boss Chris Hughton set his side up to be tough to break down, and the ploy worked as a strike force featuring Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic and Eden Dzeko was unable to make a breakthrough. Crystal Palace almost claimed a draw with similar tactics at the Etihad earlier this season, while Fulham's packed defence and ability on the break enabled them to snatch a point from Old Trafford on Sunday.
Other sides in Sunderland's position would adopt a similarly defensive mindset tonight, but Poyet does not believe his team are capable of 'parking the bus' and playing for a goalless draw. Instead, he will be instructing his players to stick to their passing principles and take solace from their impressive recent record on the road.
“It's been quite easy for teams like Palace and Fulham to try to defend and play on the break,” he said. “They have the players to do that, but we don't.
“If you can find someone who wants to play like this with Sunderland, I am happy to let them try. But we won't.
“If we played that way, Ki (Sung-Yueng) wouldn't play, and there are good players who would be on the bench because they cannot play that way. We have another system that is different and, for some reason, it is better away from home.”
It hasn't been tested at somewhere as challenging as the Etihad though, and Sunderland's task is all the harder after Yaya Toure avoided retrospective punishment despite appearing to kick Norwich striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel at the weekend.
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has been extremely critical of the FA's decision not to hand Toure a three-match ban, but Poyet feels the authorities made the right call.
“Did Yaya Toure kick the player? Yes,” he said. “But is it enough for a suspension? No. Do we really want our players to play in ballet shoes? We're playing football and there's contact.
“These things happen in games, and I'm a little bit old-fashioned when it comes to looking back at things on video. What happened, happened. The referee didn't see it? Unlucky.”