LAST SUMMER, Sunderland fudged and stumbled their way through the pre-season campaign.
Little of their preparations were ideal.
Martin O’Neill brought back his players to the Academy of Light just three days before flying to South Korea and such were the effects of jet lag in the Far East, they struggled with the intense groundwork needed on the training ground during July.
Allowing the club’s internationals extra time off back-fired too, with the pivotal figure of Stephane Sessegnon failing to play a minute of any pre-season friendly before the Premier League campaign got underway.
Fortunately for a Sunderland side who mustered prescious little goal threat during the friendly programme, they managed to remain unbeaten for their first five league games, even if they netted just five times during that run.
But nothing has been left to chance in Sunderland’s pre-season regime under Paolo Di Canio.
The Black Cats head coach promised to deliver a brutal few weeks for his players before the start of the Premier League and he has delivered on that vow.
Nestled in the Italian countryside near Verona, Sunderland’s 10-day training base in Di Canio’s homeland fell squarely under the boot camp moniker.
The facility actually had a holiday camp lay-out with chalets, volleyball pitches, swimming pools etc. Tourists were even staying alongside Sunderland’s squad and enjoying these lighter pastimes.
But Hi-de-Hi cheer was sparse for Di Canio’s charges.
This was Paolo’s time to work, drill and flog his players into peak physical condition.
Two training sessions were conducted every day - one in the morning, one at tea-time, while re-fuelling was done on pasta, pasta and more pasta.
Even tea and coffee was outlawed.
But fresh from that focused stint at a secluded location, Sunderland find themselves in a very different environment here in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong.
Nestled on the banks of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour in a glamorous hotel also used by fellow Barclays Asia Trophy participants Spurs and Manchester City, Sunderland’s stint in the Far East is dominated by a timetable of commercial and marketing commitments.
From the moment they stepped off the plane at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday afternoon, a microphone was shoved under the noses of Di Canio and his players.
This trip is about spreading the Sunderland gospel in two sell-out evenings at the Hong Kong Stadium, even if the locals’ attention will inevitably fall more heavily on seeing the likes of Gareth Bale and David Silva.
But while Sunderland’s week-long stay in Hong Kong is far more high profile in far less ideal conditions than Italy, Di Canio can still derive footballing benefits from the Asia Trophy.
Di Canio clearly doesn’t place much stock in the rounds of friendlies which some of his fellow Premier League managers organise.
Supporters may have been dismayed at the lack of pre-season games against the likes of Carlisle, York and Hartlepool, but Di Canio has put his stock on time on the training ground, rather than against lower league opposition.
The two behind-closed-doors games in Italy were little more than training exercises, while Sunderland have still not finalised any friendlies for the three weeks after Hong Kong.
Considering the abundance of new signings in Di Canio’s ranks, that decision seems odd.
But tomorrow’s game, coupled with the clash against Man City or South China FC - in what will be either a final or third play-off in the tournament - provides a crucial opportunity to build relationships together on the field.
It is also a vital chance for players to impress upon Di Canio their credentials for a starting spot against Fulham on August 17.
Of those who featured regularly under O’Neill last season, only John O’Shea and Adam Johnson look likely to be assured of places in Di Canio’s first-choice XI.
With such a relatively blank canvas, places are up for grabs throughout the side - handing plenty of intrigue for this week’s two games.
In goal, Keiren Westwood is widely expected to be Sunderland’s first-choice after Simon Mignolet’s departure, yet Vito Mannone will hope that leaving Arsenal improves his chances of being more than purely back-up.
With Modibo Diakite missing the trip through injury, there is a chance for Valentin Roberge and Carlos Cuellar to cement a spot alongside John O’Shea.
But don’t forget the credentials of Wes Brown either.
The former England international’s career looked to be a fait accompli after 18 months on the sidelines with a knee injury that refused to completely heal.
But Brown is understood to have looked in decent shape during pre-season so far and if he can maintain that run without injury, then it will be a major boost to Di Canio’s options.
Presuming Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini occupy the slots out wide, there are a cast of contenders to partner Bosman arrival Cabral in central midfield.
Craig Gardner, Jack Colback, Seb Larsson, El-Hadji Ba and David Vaughan will all want to stake their claim, even if the latter could still leave the club this summer.
There is certainly an opportunity for them with Lee Cattermole and Alfred N’Diaye missing the tour and potentially parting ties with Sunderland altogether.
And then there’s the situation up front while Steven Fletcher gingerly makes his way back from last season’s ankle injury which has ruled him out of the Hong Kong trip.
New boy Jozy Altidore will surely lead the line, but who will be in support of him while Fletcher is sidelined?
Sessegnon is the obvious candidate, yet Sunderland have been more than willing to listen to offers for the Benin international this summer.
More than arguably anyone else in the squad, Sessegnon needs a big pre-season to remind Di Canio that he still has a part to play at the Stadium of Light.
There are also several outside bet contenders up front.
New boy David Moberg Karlsson has looked sharp, albeit he has flirted with a wide midfield role, while Connor Wickham will hope for a fresh start at Sunderland under Di Canio.
Consider academy product Mikael Mandron too - the only member of the cluster of under-21s who were forced into first-team recognition at the tale end of last season, that has continued to train with Di Canio’s players.
This is the first chance to publicly gauge Di Canio’s new-look Sunderland squad and see if there are any glints of suggestion towards his first-choice XI.
Whether the club’s raft of summer signings can acclimatise to the Premier League cannot genuinely be answered until the Autumn.
But at least this week may provide an indication of Di Canio’s battle-plan against Fulham on August 17.