AS dress rehearsals go, Sunderland’s preparation for their showpiece final next week couldn’t have gone any worse. Just as well Gus Poyet has the capacity to change almost his entire cast.
Saturday’s trip to face Arsenal at the Emirates was meant to provide the perfect warm-up, an opportunity to pit their wits against a free-flowing side not too dissimilar to final opponents Manchester City, and for players to consolidate their place in next Sunday’s starting line-up.
Sunderland’s chances of overcoming Manuel Pellegrini’s side have perhaps been unfairly dismissed by some quarters, but if their performance in north London was anything to go by, the Black Cats could well face a similar fate at Wembley.
In truth, their trip to the Emirates was a complete disaster and while there were no losses through injury or suspension Poyet now faces his biggest selection dilemma for the wrong reasons.
The Uruguayan revealed he had a starting XI for the final in mind prior to the Arsenal game. However, by ten to five that plan had gone firmly out the window.
He could only look on from his technical area, arms folded in disbelief for the majority, as his team was brushed aside by a resurgent Arsenal side without even a hint of a fight.
After the Gunners’ midweek defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Sunderland had the opportunity to capitalise on their opponents’ European disappointment, but Arsene Wenger’s men showed no signs of a hangover while all the Wearsiders could do was fluff their lines.
Before the opening scene was over Olivier Giroud had put the Gunners ahead after some slick passing and by the time the interval arrived the French striker and Tomas Rosicky had both added to the score.
Jozy Altidore and Adam Johnson were taken off at half-time, and while you would still expect the latter to start against his former club next week, there must surely be question marks over the American’s place.
Vito Mannone, Jack Colback and Fabio Borini were perhaps the only players in red and white to cover themselves in any glory, while Seb Larsson and Emanuele Giaccherini both impressed from the bench after half time.
Giaccherini added a late consolation, but Laurent Koscielny’s header already had Sunderland dead and buried.
Whether Poyet’s men were holding back with the cup final in mind remains to be seen, but Liam Bridcutt, who is cup-tied next Sunday, insists that wasn’t the case.
“We weren't holding back,” the midfielder said. “It was never that because every game is a massive game for us that we go into wanting to win. That just wasn't the case.
“It's not a danger that we lose focus. The mentality of the manager and the players is not that. Our mentality is to prepare properly for every game. Staying up is 100 per cent the goal for us.
“We always knew it was going to be hard coming to Arsenal and coming up against these players and one of the best teams in the Premier League.
“It was just a bad day for us. We didn't play the football we wanted to play and we didn't really get going. It was a disappointing one on our behalf.
”I don't know where it came from. That's football I suppose. You have off days. We've been on a good run and had a great week of training building up to the game but for some reason it just wasn't right.
“I have played against Arsenal in the Cup before. We knew the qualities that they had and sometimes it's just too much for us. The one-twos and that were a bit much for us at times. It was just one of those days when we never really got going and never really seemed to put our stamp on it.”
In fairness to Sunderland, Arsenal were unplayable at times and their intense, yet intricate passing simply proved too hot to handle, but Giroud’s second was the result of some shambolic play from Santiago Vergini, who after receiving the ball from Mannone out wide and playing a one-two with Phil Bardsley, passed back to his keeper only for the French striker to intercept and sweep home.
In this instance Sunderland were punished for trying to play the ball out from the back – a characteristic that has come to the fore under Poyet – and the Black Cats boss will surely have to re-think that idea when constructing his game plan for City’s free-scorers.
Sunderland remain in the bottom three and a point from safety after West Brom snatched a late equaliser against Fulham, and Bridcutt admits next Sunday’s game isn’t the only “cup final” the Black Cats have in the final three months of the season.
He said: “It's just one of those things. You have to look forward to the next game and obviously the boys are looking forward to the final and we've just got to knuckle down and train hard. Every game between now and the end of the season is massive for us.
“Every game is important for us. We approach them all as must win games now and we're going to have to do that from now until the end of the season.”