Full-time: Sunderland 1 Recreativo de Huelva 0
GUSTAVO POYET would have preferred to have given more of his first team players a decent run out in Portugal when this week’s three fixtures in Albufeira were arranged earlier this year.
Instead he used the opening game of the pre-season trip to the Algarve as a further chance to blood a few young guns in to the first team picture and the outcome was a narrow win at the Estadio Municipal de Albufeira against Spanish side Recreativo de Huelva.
The result building up to the start of the Premier League season on August 16 is inconsequential and the vast majority of his pool of Premier League players will face CD Nacional on Wednesday night instead.
But Poyet will know he would have preferred greater depth in the initial travelling party to mix things up for the back-to-back fixtures. Instead, while great for the younger players’ experience, he had to be more careful.
The Uruguayan has hoped for more new players – last Friday’s arrival of Patrick van Aanholt aside – for weeks but despite plenty of efforts the club’s attempts have failed to lure top targets Cristian Rodriguez and Fabio Borini so far.
This pretty straight-forward friendly in Portugal did provide opportunities for Liam Bridcutt, who has missed three friendlies through injury so far, to build up his fitness after his introduction in the second half. It also provided some action for players with uncertain futures, such as Alfred N’Diaye, Charis Mavrias and Valentin Roberge.
Greek winger Mavrias it was who earned the penalty from which Mandron scored the winner 12 minutes from the end when he powerfully smashed down the middle.
Given the time it is taking Sunderland to significantly improve Poyet’s first team squad, the performances of the younger players during pre-season will be higher in the head coach’s thinking than it might have been at the start of the summer.
This was a further opportunity for the development squad players to put themselves in to the frame for an appearance or two in the Premier League against a Spanish second division team which finished eighth last season.
Recreativo’s greater experience showed in the early exchanges, with them retaining possession better than Sunderland, although chances were few and far between on a difficult surface.
The only half chances which arrived in the opening 20 minutes were when Tom McNamee had to be alert to clear in his six yard box after towering centre-back Juanan’s header at the back post was blocked by Mikael Mandron.
There was a rather tame effort from striker Joselu too, which trickled in to the hands of goalkeeper Joel Dixon. After that, though, a largely unfamiliar Sunderland grew in confidence and almost took the lead.
Midfielder Martin Smith curled a brilliant free-kick with power against the crossbar, with goalkeeper Ruben Galvez beaten. The follow up also went close, when David Ferguson drilled his low drive a yard wide of the far post.
Regardless of what was served up on the pitch, the supporters enjoyed the occasion anyway, with the first team players so close to them in the only stand separated from the pitch by an athletics track.
Recreativo did look dangerous down the left, with Cabrera particularly evident and displaying some nice touches. Victor Diaz, on the opposite wing, would have scored had Liam Agnew not been on the line to clear his clever back heel which caught Dixon out.
Poyet wanted to give some of his first team players a decent run and that is what he did. If it was a chance for the development squad’s players to impress, Mavrias and El-Hadji Ba initially looked full of intent to try to show Poyet that they deserve a bigger role in his plans. The latter looked hungry to get on the ball and has had a decent pre-season.
But as the pace of the second half slowed from a Sunderland view, Recreativo hit the bar themselves. Hector Mennosse turned a Montoro free-kick to the back post against the woodwork with a fine diving header.
Shortly after the Spaniards made a team of changes, Sunderland found the breakthrough. Mavrias charged in behind Fran Avila and the defender pulled him down when a goal looked on. Mandron converted for his second goal of pre-season.
SUNDERLAND (4-1-2-3): Dixon; Cartwright, McNamee (Roberge 46), Beadling, Ferguson; Agnew (Bridcutt 46); Smith (N’Diaye 46), Honeyman (Watmore 73); Lawson (Ba 46), Mandron, Watmore (Mavrias 46). Subs: Mannone (gk).
RECREATIVO DE HUELVA (4-4-1-1): Galvez; Diaz, Menosse, Juanan, Veja; Nunez, Montoro (Jesus 61), Dimas, Cabrera; Zambrano; Joselu. Subs (all used on 73): Sotres, Corcoles, Zamora, Jorge, Araujo, Aitor, Molina, Koke, Caye, Avila.