Big Match Verdict: Southampton’s a testing trip for Sunderland

Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio
Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio
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IT WAS a critically costly clanger which overshadowed every other aspect of his debut.

When Valentin Roberge got his body position unfathomably wrong in his challenge – or lack of it – with Fulham’s Pajtim Kasami last weekend, the Bosman arrival’s contribution was stigmatised.

Roberge had looked genuinely encouraging until then; showing plenty of confidence in bringing the ball out of defence and distributing crisply and astutely.

But his error was the fatal blow to Sunderland’s hopes of starting the season on a positive note and now Paolo Di Canio must decide whether the French centre-half can cope with the far more testing aerial threat of Rickie Lambert tomorrow.

After that thumping header on his England bow and the last-minute penalty at West Brom last Saturday, Lambert has a “can do nothing wrong” aura about him at present.

It is not without reason.

Speaking to Danny Rose last season, the on-loan Spurs left-back said Lambert was the most challenging targetman he had ever faced.

There will be none of the languidness of Dimitar Berbatov this weekend.

Lambert will be in the faces of Sunderland’s centre-halves and inevitably will sense a weakness in whoever lines up alongside John O’Shea.

Given Di Canio’s encouragement towards Roberge this week, he may well opt to stick with the former Maritimo man.

And with Wes Brown still absent, neither of the two alternatives to Roberge are without concerns.

Carlos Cuellar has little football under his belt after being limited to a fringe role during pre-season, while Modibo Diakite’s fitness is similarly in question.

Tuesday’s Capital One Cup second round tie against MK Dons may be a more feasible opportunity for both.

It is not the only decision to be made at the back either.

The return from suspension of Craig Gardner, along with David Vaughan, gives Di Canio options at right-back.

Ondrej Celustka is likely to remain there after an encouraging debut against the Cottagers.

Yet Gardner played in that role throughout pre-season and is more familiar with Sunderland’s system, even if the Czech is the more natural defender.

Neither of Sunderland’s full-backs will enjoy an easy ride against Southampton.

As the Saints showed in the final Stadium of Light encounter of last season, Lambert’s supporting cast of Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez are always busy, always on the move and will drift off their flanks in the pursuit of picking gaps.

It is a fluent, interchanging brand of football which Mauro Pochettino has overseen during his seven months in charge, and similar to the one Di Canio is attempting to implement at the Stadium of Light.

Pochettino has also addressed Southampton’s deficiencies with his big-money moves in the transfer market.

Last weekend’s £15million capture of Italian international Danny Osvaldo provides an alternative to Lambert, while Victor Wanyama and Dejan Lovren provide brute strength down the spine of the team in central midfield and central defence.

It was that soft underbelly which was too often Southampton’s Achilles heel last season after conceding nine more goals than Sunderland.

But the Saints now look a more resilient unit and that has given Pochettino licence to introduce the latest graduates of the club’s hugely successful academy, with three 18-year-old’s starting at The Hawthorns.

Given the investment made at St Mary’s, it is easy to overlook that this is only Southampton’s second campaign back in the Premier League.

Yet this suddenly looks a much more testing fixture than the one Sunderland faced three days before Christmas last term and one where a point has to be considered a reasonable outcome.

Verdict: Draw