Traditionally, the final match of pre-season is when a manager shows his hand for the new campaign.
But Sunderland’s 2-0 win over Cyril, Muriel, Allan, Gabriel et al left Black Cats fans with questions to be answered.
It was a mixed blessing. Gustavo Poyet goes into Saturday’s opener at West Bromwich Albion with options in some areas and a lack of them in others.
His final line-up of the phoney war was missing Adam Johnson, Sebastian Larsson, patiently awaiting the birth of his child, and Poyet’s favourite player, Liam Bridcutt. Expect all of them to start at the Hawthorns.
Charis Mavrias started as a thank you present for playing out of position at right-back until Thursday’s signing of Santiago Vergini. It would be a big surprise if he was shown the same kindness when the proper stuff kicks in, and anyway his ankle might be too sore after the clattering it took from the not so angelic Gabriel Silva. The tackle was so bad it earned the Brazilian a booking in a pre-season friendly.
Poyet is expecting Lee Congerton will have provided further reinforcements by then, although he was refusing to give numbers, never mind names. If a fit Fabio Borini were to appear, he is perhaps the only one who might slot straight into the starting 11, but the longer he hesitates over a £14m move, the more you wonder if he is worth the wait. A half-hearted player is no good to Sunderland.
Poyet further muddied the waters by changing his usual formation. That he tried a 4-3-3 shape accommodating Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher was a sign of how the pair have impressed him in recent weeks – as well, it must be said, as his lack of wide options with Emanuele Giaccherini ruled out, Johnson rested as a precaution at Bishop Auckland and no new arrival yet to fill the Borini brief.
Officially, no decision has been made over the first-choice goalkeeper, but contrary though it may seem, the decision to give Costel Pantilimon and Vito Mannone a half each was perhaps a tiny nudge in the Romanian’s direction. Mannone’s need for minutes was greater than that of his rival, who had a bit more to do before Sunderland stepped things up after the break.
Mannone, Bridcutt and Jozy Altidore apart, the bench was populated with players who can expect to see little Premier League action this season – certainly not in Sunderland’s colours – unless the misfortune of others works in their favour. Congerton will try to move Alfred N’Diaye and Danny Graham on, while the rest will either be used to flesh out the squad, or loaned for experience.
Sunderland ended the warm-up with a win against decent opposition but it was hardly a tour de force to send shivers down the spine of Alan Irvine – in the Heritage Park stands on Thursday but busy on the Hawthorns touchline on Saturday.
Udinese had the better of the first half, with Pantilimon the only goalkeeper forced into action.
He tipped a good dipping shot from Allan Loureiro over the bar and was called upon by his own defence shortly before half-time.
One of Thomas Robson’s first touches in senior football played Wes Brown into trouble and he in turn sold John O’Shea short, sending Luis Muriel Fruto clean through. Not for the first time, Pantilimon was quick off his line to save.
Robson was on because of an injury to Patrick van Aanholt. “Patrick didn’t feel a pull or anything but he was uncomfortable,” Poyet explained afterwards.
Robson, a Stanley-based product of Darlington’s academy listed on the club’s website as a midfielder, settled in better at left-back after the break, but looks more a candidate to continue learning his trade on loan than someone ready now for top-flight football.
Billy Jones, who will miss the start of the season with a hamstring problem, can cover on the left side of defence and centre-back Vergini will begin the campaign deputising for him on the right, as Mavrias can. For the last half-hour Brown even rolled back the years slotting into the right-back position he could have been excused for having forgotten how to play.
Left-back, though, forever seems to be Sunderland’s Achilles heel and while they will be able to make do and mend there, another recruit would just give the squad a more balanced look.
Brown too looked slightly rusty at times in his preferred position and feisty out wide but has a track record that inspires confidence he will be all right on the night.
Jack Rodwell was unable to really impose himself on the game as he had done on Thursday. Both run-outs were 45-minute affairs.
Wickham looked comfortable enough on the left of the front three, breaking down the wing early in the second half and hitting a terrific free-kick when Danilo Larangeira resorted to foul means to stop him. Playing him and Fletcher in the same side looks a realistic option.
In the second game of his second spell at Sunderland, Vergini opened the scoring from a Jordi Gomez corner and two minutes later Igor Bubnjic brought him down inside the area for a penalty Wickham converted.
Of the youngsters, midfielder Liam Agnew looked most ready to step up to senior level, and showed a willingness to break beyond the strikers.
Mannone made a good near-post save from Bruno Fernandes after 78 minutes, but Sunderland’s grip of the fading game was not to his advantage.