THIS was the night when Gustavo Poyet sent out arguably Sunderland’s strongest starting line-up for the first time during pre-season, yet there were still signs if you looked for them that a big fortnight for the club lies ahead.
There were positives from a low-key friendly with Portugal’s CD Nacional that had been heading for a draw before Lucas struck a late winner, with Poyet able to field somewhere near his favoured first team.
Encouraging displays from new signings and the likes of Steven Fletcher, who struggled for form and fitness last season, getting through 90 minutes will have heartened the boss.
But Sunderland clearly need more, and in key areas, having seen Poyet try the powerful Connor Wickham in a left-wing role. He would prefer to have Fabio Borini there for the start of the Premier League season – or even Chelsea’s Christian Atsu.
Then there was the bench, with last season’s forgotten men Alfred N’Diaye, Charis Mavrias, Valentin Roberge and El-Hadji Ba all more involved than even they would have thought at this stage of the summer schedule.
Poyet will now be praying that inspirational midfielder Lee Cattermole has not suffered anything too serious after being forced off with a kick to the leg in the second half. To have him ruled out for the start of the campaign would be just as damaging at this stage as not bringing in another midfielder. It was a very pedestrian performance, with Sunderland probably more deserving of winning than their opponents, who finished fifth in the Portuguese league last season. It was only a friendly – albeit one when Poyet would have liked more summer signings involved.
After the frustrations on the transfer front this summer, the sight of a natural left-back lining up in Portugal will at least have given Poyet some satisfaction.
Patrick van Aanholt, following his arrival from Chelsea, provided the balance on the left in a back four which also included the right-footed Billy Jones, signed from West Brom after his contract expired, down the opposite flank.
Jones, already something of a cult hero following his arrival because of a song which has fast become the anthem of this pre-season tour, was the creator of Sunderland’s first real chance. His delivery from the left was perfect for Wickham, whose header dropped in to the arms of goalkeeper Gottardi.
Nacional rarely threatened Costel Pantilimon, interestingly preferred ahead of Vito Mannone, in the Sunderland goal but there was only a couple of other real chances in the opening half to worry his Portuguese counterpart.
Again Jones, who was replaced at half-time, was involved. This time he was denied from Gottardi following a burst in to the box to meet Adam Johnson’s run and cross, but nevertheless it was an encouraging displaying from the defender.
The second was the best of the lot. When makeshift left-winger Wickham, who had drifted in to his more preferred central role, was played in behind the defence by Fletcher he drilled a low shot towards the far post which the keeper turned behind for a corner.
Jones’ half-time departure paved the way for a further appearance for Mavrias, this time at right-back, which should hearten the Greek wide-man who is desperate to prove himself at the Stadium of Light after moving from Panathinaikos 12 months ago.
But the biggest blow was when Cattermole had to limp down the tunnel early after Joao Aurelio had left his studs on the Sunderland midfielder’s leg. Despite Liam Bridcutt’s introduction, it will be hoped the injury is not serious after assessment.
Once again Mavrias and Ba, two of the younger members of the squad to be taken along for the duration of the Algarve trip, finished as two of Sunderland’s brightest performers, but the former could not prevent Nacional from creating the winner from his side.
Nacional’s left-back Sequeira found space down Mavrias’ flank and his delivery in to the area saw striker Lucas edge in front of Wes Brown to apply the finish and inflict Sunderland’s first defeat of pre-season.
SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Pantilimon; Jones (Mavrias 46), Brown, O’Shea, Van Aanholt (Roberge 81); Cattermole (Bridcutt 61); Johnson (N’Diaye 75), Gomez, Giaccherini Ba 78); Fletcher, Wickham. Sub (not used): Mannone (gk).
CD NACIONAL (4-4-2): Gottardi; Zainadine, Miguel, Ezzat, Marçal, Aly Ghazal, Ayala, Gomaa, Mário Rondon, Suk, Marco Matia. Subs used: Bouabacar, Sequeira, Wiliyan. Subs (not used): Rui Silva, Joao Aurelio, Camacho, Lucas, Reginaldo, Rui Correia.