Manchester City 1 Sunderland 0
SUNDERLAND’S stint in Hong Kong could feasibly have morphed into the tour from hell.
From a purely footballing aspect, Paolo Di Canio was battling against several factors when he learned that he would be taking his side to the Far East to spread the Premier League gospel:
H The draining effects of a 12,000 mile round trip.
H The Hong Kong rainy season’s oxygen-sapping hold of humidity, which barely dropped under 90 per cent.
H And potentially worst of all, a pitch reduced to a Glastonbury-esque mud bath which claimed the scalps of Spurs centre-half Jan Vertonghen and Manchester City’s Matija Nastasic.
But when Sunderland landed back on home soil this morning, the club’s power-brokers can reflect on a trip which fulfilled its commercial objectives AND produced plenty of positives for Di Canio’s charges.
From a marketing stance, Sunderland made their mark with the manner of their performance against Tottenham in last Wednesday’s semi-final.
Even though they never really threatened to lift the Barclays Asia Trophy against Manchester City on Saturday after Edin Dzeko’s stunning ninth minute winner, Sunderland were undoubtedly the fan favourites in the Hong Kong Stadium.
Among the predominantly Manchester United supporting locals, Sunderland were the gritty underdogs, whose attempts to deny City a killer second goal were cheered vociferously – particularly if it involved humiliating pantomime villain Samir Nasri.
That Sunderland failed to lift the Asia Trophy is an irrelevance, though.
Supporters deprived of silverware took a half tongue-in-cheek eagerness towards the possibility of lifting a cup prior to kick-off.
But with Sunderland only likely to play one more friendly prior to the start of the Premier League – in Denmark next week – this was another precious opportunity to prepare for Fulham on August 17.
Di Canio utilised his substitutes in the second half, but by naming an unchanged starting XI, it was another significant hint that he already knows the bulk of his side to face the Cottagers.
Two specialist full-backs, plus a midfield playmaker, could all be fast-tracked into the line-up if Sunderland can land them over the next 19 days.
But the bulk of Di Canio’s jigsaw is in place, and he knows how it will look.
Those who did complete the full 90 minutes – Craig Gardner, Jack Colback, Seb Larsson, John O’Shea and most encouragingly Wes Brown – were panting with hands on knees at the final whistle after the combined effects of the pitch and the humidity.
But it will be yet another boost to their fitness, and that is what Di Canio did so well in the Far East.
There was no attitude of “taking it easy” because of the heat, humidity or rain.
Sunderland were largely on the training field twice every day.
If they can produce that work-rate in Hong Kong, then they can certainly do it at the Stadium of Light.
The drawback of the training regime was that fatigue took it’s toll on Sunderland’s performance on Saturday and there was never the same zip around their approach play as they showed against Spurs, albeit the pitch grew increasingly farcical.
City’s well-drilled defence comfortably coped with Sunderland’s attempts to get the ball in behind, while the Black Cats too often wasted promising situations which they had created down the flanks.
Had it not been for a Dzeko penalty fit for the Hong Kong Sevens or a series of last-gasp interventions from Colback, Gardner and Larsson, then City could have coasted to victory by a more handsome margin.
Yet Sunderland actually started the final brightly and looked the sharper and fitter side in the early stages where they pressed City into surrendering possession.
Brown glanced a Larsson free-kick wide of the post, while Stephane Sessegnon should have tried his luck from the edge of the area, rather than feeding Adam Johnson on the right-hand by-line.
But with their first attack of the game, City broke the deadlock and Sunderland never really threatened to get back on level terms.
It was a goal worthy of winning a trophy though, even if new City boss Manuel Pellegrini won’t be rushing to put the Asia Trophy on his CV.
Brown’s clearing header dropped as far as Dzeko, loitering in the D, and the ball sat up perfectly for the Bosnian, who wrapped his left foot around it and sizzled a half-volley inside the near post.
Summer arrival Alvaro Negredo should have doubled the advantage three minutes later, but skied his left-footed shot over the bar as he bore down on Vito Mannone’s goal after beating the Sunderland offside trap.
Emanuele Giaccherini threatened six minutes before the interval when he met Jozy Altidore’s pull-back with a right-footed shot from the edge of the area which Costel Pantilimon gathered relatively comfortably.
But Sunderland were fortunate not to trail by two on the stroke of half-time when Gardner inadvertently headed David Silva’s free-kick towards his own goal, only for the ball to cannon back off the far post.
Di Canio introduced three substitutes at the interval - Keiren Westwood, Connor Wickham and El-Hadji Ba - and the latter gifted City the chance to double their advantage in the 65th minute when he bustled away Nasri’s flick with his arm.
Dzeko’s subsequent penalty was a sight though, the striker slicing it high and wide of Westwood’s goal.
Westwood had to be alert to parry away Jesus Navas’ deflected skidding shot in the 72nd minute before the Spaniard was denied by Gardner moments later.
City caught the Black Cats two-on-one on the counter-attack, with Nasri squaring the ball to Navas down the right-hand side of the area.
The £15million arrival hit a right-foot shot which beat Westwood, but not Gardner who had charged back to clear off the line.
The closest Sunderland came to an equaliser was in the 84th minute when Larsson curled a low free-kick from the edge of the area which was pushed away smartly by Pantilimon, down to his right.
A barrage of fireworks greeted the final whistle before Vincent Kompany attempted to look delighted at lifting the Asia Trophy.
But finishing as losers matters not to Sunderland.
Di Canio has ensured what could have been a hazardous trip, ultimately became something of a winner.
MANCHESTER CITY: Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic (Lescott 75), Clichy (Kolarov 62), Milner (Navas 46), Garcia, Toure (Fernandinho 62), Silva (Nasri 46), Dzeko, Negredo (Barry 79). Subs not used: Wright, Rodwell, Boyata.
SUNDERLAND: Mannone (Westwood 46), Gardner, Brown, O’Shea, Colback, Johnson (Moberg Karlsson 61), Larsson, Cabral (Ba 46), Giaccherini (McClean 76), Sessegnon (Mandron 88), Altidore (Wickham 46). Subs not used: Pickford, Vaughan, Cuellar, Roberge.