The phoney war is over but for Paolo Di Canio, the battle rages on.
Sunderland completed their pre-season campaign here in Denmark, beating opponents three games into their league campaign with enough left over to suggest their pre-season campaign has given them a vigour and zip that was hitherto missing for most of the last miserable campaign.
The general consensus among the Herning public, as well as those observers who had travelled from the North East to witness it, was that they had played quite well – a performance of positives topped off by a simply wonderful winning goal from Adam Johnson.
Di Canio did not agree. Forcefully so. “I was disappointed with the attitude,” he said afterwards, his words laced with menace.
“The attitude is crucial. We can talk about tactics during the season or technical mistakes that can be improved by practice, but the attitude is the thing you don’t know.
“Some of my players are new so I don’t know. I would not be arrogant enough to think I can discover their attitude in two hours of playing, but it can change for whatever reason.
“Today was a big opportunity for all the players to show we are ready to start the season strong, but some of them failed to complete the mission. I have to make sure they change their mentality otherwise we will have a problem.”
It was strong stuff and the sheepish way that the players trudged through the bowels of the MCH Arena as they awaited the coach back to the airport confirmed that the riot act had been unscrolled by the Sunderland boss once again in the privacy of the dressing room.
What had particularly irked Di Canio, it seems, was the way some of his players let their tempo drop as the second half meandered towards its conclusion. The ineffectual Stephane Sessegnon, so bright in patches out in Hong Kong, seemed to be the target of Di Canio’s ire alongside others.
The new arrivals, all hand-picked by Di Canio and his director of football Roberto Di Fanti, were not absolved of blame either.
“It is not the end of the world,” he countered. But it might be for one or two who made the trip: possibly following James McClean’s unlamented departure from the Sunderland squad.
Before the game he had sent another message, leaving Lee Cattermole at home to further reinforce the message that the Sunderland captain’s career at the Stadium of Light is effectively over.
Di Canio is seeking a physical English midfielder to play in the engine room. Cattermole is English and physical but Di Canio simply isn’t interested. His ruthlessness knows no bounds.
Sifting through the evidence here, it is difficult to pin-point exactly who was in the firing line after this win. Maybe it was a collective ‘must-do-better’ message – a warning shot designed to keep them on their toes ahead of the Premier League kick off.
FC Midtjylland played generous hosts, but nearly surprised Sunderland early on.
The first meaningful passage of play saw Keiren Westwood – who did his first-team chances no harm whatsoever with an accomplished display -–saving well from Marco Larsen after Frank Kristensen’s flicked header had teed him up.
Sunderland’s opener in the seventh minute was simply sublime. The impressive Emanuelle Giaccherini began the move, bursting from deep before chipping a terrific ball into the path of Stephane Sessegnon.
He still had work to do, however, as he teed up Jozy Altidore, who responded to being penned in by Midtjylland defenders by back-heeling beautifully into the path of Johnson. The England winger applied a finish of precision and class to push Sunderland noses in front.
That was in-keeping with the Black Cats’ generally smart start. Prompted by Cabral, stoking the fires in the midfield engine room, they had an intensity about them. None were doing more to catch the eye than Westwood, however.
Just before the half-hour he pulled off a brilliant, point-blank save from Kristensen’s header that served as another stirring reminder of his first team claims. Those trawling for hints about the shape of Sunderland when they line up against Fulham on Saturday will have noted with interest the presence of Westwood over Vito Mannone, while Carlos Cuellar’s return at full-back suggested that Craig Gardner might not be nailed on to fill the right-back role when the serious business starts.
Sunderland have a settled look about them, as if the long hours spent working on shape and systems in the searing heat of Hong Kong and the Great Lakes of Italy has started to pay off.
The midfield mix is clearly troubling Di Canio, but it has certainly matured since the end of last season. Playing alongside better players, Seb Larsson’s performances seem to have lifted a level – surely a reflection on the calibre of their summer arrival from FC Basle.
No-one would doubt that Cabral is an upgrade on Alfred N’Diaye, offering the same muscle and authority that the Frenchman did while also boasting superior composure and the ability to pick a pass. Johnson’s work on the left has carried more spark of late, while a couple of first-half bursts from Giaccherini illustrated why he has earned international stripes for Italy. If Di Canio is able to add the playmaker that he craves before the transfer window closes it will be one of the best Sunderland engine rooms in recent memory.
But he is not satisfied – and perhaps he never will be. There was certainly something about the meandering pace of the second half that raised his hackles, with Sunderland unable to maintain their first half tempo.
The hosts made a series of changes, the Black Cats failed to punish their second team. Jack Colback was thankful to referee Mads-Kristoffer Kristoffersen and a “gentlemen’s agreement” struck before the game that meant no red cards would be shown after he picked up a second booking for sliding in on Musefiu Ashiru. Sunderland quickly substituted him for Craig Gardner.