AT times over the last few weeks, it has been easy to assume that Sunderland’s entire attacking threat for next season revolves solely around Fabio Borini’s willingness to leave Liverpool.
Both scored as Sunderland continued their pre-season preparations with a 2-0 win over Real Betis last night, and both will hope to play prominent roles in the new campaign. Wickham will want to prove the final month of last season was no flash in the pan, while Fletcher will be desperate to put the injury problems of the last couple of seasons behind him.
Together, they at least give Poyet some much-needed breathing space as he ponders whether to draw a line under his pursuit of Borini and look elsewhere.
Jack Rodwell’s positive first display in a Sunderland shirt suggests he will be a welcome addition to the attacking ranks, although Emmanuel Giaccherini’s failure to complete the first half of last night’s game cast something of a shadow over proceedings.
Giaccherini fell to floor clutching his groin shortly before half-time, and given that he was in obvious pain as he trudged from the field and straight down the tunnel for treatment, his participation in the opening game at West Brom a week tomorrow has to be in doubt.
“We are hoping that he has just over-extended,” said Poyet, “But we will have to see how things settle down and he might need a scan. We could be looking at him being out for a couple of weeks.”
Jordi Gomez replaced the Italian yesterday, and is now more likely to start at the Hawthorns as a result, but with his midfield options already fairly limited following the departure of Jack Colback, Craig Gardner and Ki Sung-Yueng, Poyet would not want to be deprived of Giaccherini’s services for too long.
Last night’s line-up provided an insight into the Uruguayan’s thinking with just one more friendly to go, although Sunderland’s head coach is hardly overrun with options given the lack of numbers currently at his disposal.
At least Santiago Vergini’s return to Wearside completes another piece of the jigsaw, with the formalities of the Argentinian’s season-long loan having been completed in time for him to line up at Heritage Park.
Having spent the latter stages of last season playing at right-back, Vergini has returned primarily to compete with Billy Jones for the full-back berth, but the 26-year-old’s ability to also play at centre-half makes him a valuable defensive addition given that Carlos Cuellar has left since the end of last season.
Second-half substitute Wes Brown will almost certainly replace Valentin Roberge from last night’s starting line-up when Sunderland travel to the Hawthorns, with Lee Cattermole expected to replace Liam Bridcutt at the base of midfield. Beyond that though, last night’s side should not be too far away from the Black Cats’ opening Premier League selection unless further signings arrive next week.
Rodwell will certainly expect to be involved against the Baggies, and the former England international made his first appearance in Sunderland colours three days after completing a £10m move from Manchester City.
The pedestrian pace of the game made it difficult to gauge his fitness, but he looked reasonably sharp during his 45 minutes of action and the slickness of his passing was apparent from the outset. If, and admittedly it’s a big if, he can remain injury-free, he could be the box-to-box midfielder Sunderland have lacked for the best part of a decade.
He was easily the more advanced of the Black Cats’ central midfielders before the interval, and might well have opened his account for the club had he not shot tamely at goalkeeper Antonio Adan after breaking into the area to receive Adam Johnson’s through ball midway through the first half.
The second half initially contained even fewer goalscoring chances than the first, although Cattermole’s half-time introduction at least ensured there would be a competitive edge to proceedings that resulted in some choice tackles from both teams.
Vito Mannone, who played the full 90 minutes in preference to Costel Pantilimon, got down well to clutch Ruben Castro’s glanced header, and Fletcher finally made a breakthrough with ten minutes left.
The Scotsman dispossessed Gonzalez Bruno midway inside the Betis half, and advanced towards the edge of the area before drilling home.
Wickham doubled Sunderland’s lead three minutes later, linking up with Fletcher adeptly before cracking home a fierce left-footed drive.
SUNDERLAND (4-1-4-1): Mannone; Vergini (Mavrias 46), O’Shea (Brown 46), Roberge, van Aanholt; Bridcutt; Johnson (Fletcher 68), Larsson, Rodwell (Cattermole 46), Giaccherini (Gomez 39); Wickham.
Sub (not used): Pantilimon (gk).
REAL BETIS (4-4-2): Adan; Molinero, Bruno, Jordi, Alex; Cedrick, Xavi (Matilla 46), Perquis, Pacheco (Chuli 46); Castro, Renella (Molina 73).
Subs (not used): Giminez (gk), Carlos, Nono, Isaac, Isuardi, Garcia, Caro, Rodriguez, Pedro.