FOR about 15 minutes at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, the Stéphane Sessègnon of last season showed up.
Unfortunately for Sunderland, a Manchester City side that looked better, quicker and more skilful than last season’s championship winners dominated the other 75.
But that will be of little concern to Martin O’Neill, who rightly made the point that better teams than his will get turned over by Roberto Mancini’s outfit.
However, on a day when there were precious few positives, Sessègnon’s return to something approaching form was worth holding on to.
Sunderland’s talisman of last season came to life after half-time, and for a short spell was the best player on the park. For an all too brief spell, it even looked as if the Wearsiders were getting into this game.
Sessègnon had struggled in the first half; an attempted pass to Adam Johnson going straight out the park was a particular lowlight.
And that has been the story of the season so far, which O’Neill admitted has worried him. When your best player is off form, then what chance do you have?
But then on 52 minutes Sessègnon quite brilliantly nutmegged City left-back, Aleksandar Kolarov, and bought himself some space that didn’t seem to be there.
He picked out Steven Fletcher with a pinpoint cross, which the Scot connected well with, but he was denied by the linesman’s flag – he was marginally offside – and a magnificent Joe Hart save.
All of a sudden, and all the time, Sessègnon seemed to be on the ball. He began operating in that area between City’s back four and midfield that he loves so much, and the men in blue didn’t quite know how to cope with him.
It was still 1-0 when he produced a stunning pass along the grass that would have sent Johnson through into the penalty box, only for the superb Kolarov to put in a perfect tackle that took man and ball.
A few minutes later and City were 2-0 up, and it was then a case of how many the home side would score.
However, the one thing that would have cheered up O’Neill on the journey back to the North East was that at long last his main playmaker has woken up, and just in time for the season’s first derby game.
The Newcastle match on Sunday week is massive for Sunderland. They desperately need a win, and Sessègnon needs to be right on his game.
Jack Colback believes his team-mate is not far from getting back to his best and acknowledged that for Sessègnon to make Sunderland tick, then he must be given the chance to shine.
He said: “Sess was magnificent last year. I thought for a lot of the season that he carried us a bit, if I’m honest. On his day, he is a fantastic player, something he has shown for us lots of times.
“We just need to get him in the game a bit more, and not just him – we need to get more of the ball to Fletcher, McClean and Johnson, so we can use our threatening side more. We haven’t done that enough.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to feed the ball into Stéphane. He gets himself out of some impossible positions sometimes, when you don’t expect him to get out, but we do need to give him better service so he can go on and make things happen for us.”
It was interesting Colback mentioned McClean and Johnson who, it must be said, have had quiet starts to the season. Neither made any impression in Manchester, but in all fairness they came up against a City side that were in a different class.
The fact goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was Sunderland’s best player said it all. Had it not been for the Belgian, it could very easily have been six or seven, and 3-0 was bad enough.
Colback admitted: “It was a hard day. That’s a tough place to go to as City have a lot of world-class players. We did go into the game thinking and hoping we could get a result, as we showed last year by taking four points off them. It just didn’t happen for us.
“We started the second half well. If we had scored then it would have changed things. We were disappointed to concede so early on. When you play the very top teams you need to keep a clean sheet for as long as possible.
“We showed on a couple of occasions that we could have got a goal back, but their second killed us.”
Actually it was the first goal that killed Sunderland. The game was two minutes old when Carlos Cuellar tried and failed to play Carlos Tevez offside, and was so desperate to peg back the Argentinian that he felled him with a dreadful tackle.
He got a booking, City won a free-kick, which the excellent Kolarov sent into the top corner with his left foot.
And just when Sunderland were beginning to look as if something could be done, Kolarov got down the left-wing and his low cross was turned home by Sergio Aguero with his first touch of the ball.
He had come on for the truly awful Mario Balotelli (pictured below).
There was still half-an-hour to go and City, with David Silva just wonderful in midfield, utterly dominated.
The third goal was slightly unfortunate in that James Milner’s free-kick four minutes from time deflected off Craig Gardner, leaving Mignolet with no chance to make a save.
But there was nothing unfortunate about the result as Sunderland crashed to their first defeat of a season that has still to take off, although the supporters will be far from worried. The players are certainly relaxed.
As Colback said: “There have been a few games we drew when we should have won. We could have been really flying, We have only lost once – on Saturday – so that’s not bad. It’s been an okay start to the season and the boys are still upbeat.”