Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland’s Di Canio must find a real goal threat

Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.
Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.
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THE POSSE of Stoke City players cursed their luck with choice language as they re-trod their steps onto the Stadium of Light pitch to warm down.

Despite registering the point they would surely have accepted before kick-off, the Potters were the most distraught of the two sets of players after blowing the chance against 10 men to secure a win which would have guaranteed their Premier League survival.

In contrast, Sunderland will take heart from the doggedness of their display, even if it wasn’t the victory which would have given their hopes of safety a massive shot in the arm.

Win against Southampton on Sunday and the point may well prove to be the one which edged Sunderland over the line.

But before the outcome of Wigan’s attempts to pile more pressure on Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich is even known, Paolo Di Canio immediately has a problem ahead of the Saints game.

How does he solve the gulf left by the suspended Stephane Sessegnon?

It was a quandary which Di Canio was unable to find the answers to last night.

Credit the Italian for his half-time team talk because Sunderland were transformed from the bag of nerves in the opening 45 minutes where they seemed intent on out-pinballing Stoke with their scrappy approach play.

Perhaps it was a hangover from the Aston Villa debacle which needed to be cleared from the heads, but it was only in the second half when Sunderland were far more like the side which chased every ball against Everton and Newcastle.

But Sunderland’s goal threat – or lack of it – remains a major issue for the visit of a Southampton side, who will inevitably be nervy after a return two points from four games have thrust them back into the dogfight.

There has to be a touch of sympathy for the size and nature of the squad Di Canio inherited.

Admittedly, three of the Italian’s forward options are either on the treatment table or sitting suspended in the stands.

But Di Canio almost immediately criticised the lack of strikers at the club when he succeeded Martin O’Neill and the fact that 18-year-old Mikael Mandron – a top prospect, but still technically a second-year apprentice – is the only forward alternative speaks volumes.

The one established striker Di Canio can boast is desperately lacking confidence too.

Danny Graham again worked every cotton fibre in his socks off, but the striker has now gone more than 13 hours without a Premier League goal and doesn’t look like ending that drought.

The self-belief badly needs the soothing sight of the net rippling – the 27-year-old tellingly squaring to Alfred N’Diaye just after the hour mark, when a shot on the turn, just inside the area, was the most viable option.

But Graham needs support and the system with which Di Canio embarked upon struggled to rectify that.

Credit to Adam Johnson, who grasped the magnitude of the occasion and tried to create both from the hole and when he was switched to the right.

But only one of the midfield quintet who started the game were playing in their natural position and it showed during an opening 30 minutes when Sunderland laboured, even more so when Jonathan Walters pounced on dreadful defending/goalkeeping for the opener.

James McClean on the right wing does not look like a strategy which should be experimented with again, while Jack Colback offered little on the opposite flank. It would have made more sense to push Danny Rose up there.

It totted up to half-an-hour of hit and hope, where the groans on the terraces grew louder and louder.

But ironically the dismissal of Craig Gardner – that prompted apologies from the Brummie on Twitter last night – for a mindlessly hot-headed lunge into Charlie Adam, produced a far more natural shape for Sunderland

It wasn’t pretty, nor fluent two-touch football.

But Di Canio’s side looked cohesive down both flanks with Colback again proving adept at right-back as he supported the impressive Johnson.

On the opposite side, McClean was a far happier species on his natural side, while Rose again proved Sunderland’s most threatening outlet.

Rose injects some pace and impetus into Sunderland’s approach-play when he bombs forward and had the on-loan Spurs left-back possessed a modicum of fortune, he would have grabbed the winner.

But when Sunderland are back to their full quota of 11 against Southampton on Sunday, what does Di Canio do?

The options are getting thinner and thinner by the game. Sunderland’s top three scorers will be now missing for what is unquestionably the best of the two chances to get that prescious last win of the campaign.

Providing Connor Wickham remains sidelined by the calf strain which has ruled him out since sustaining it at Chelsea, only Phil Bardsley and David Vaughan are viable options to be included against the Saints.

A start for either will require a re-jig, but perhaps last night proved that Di Canio cannot afford to experiment unnecessarily at this stage of the campaign.

Unless Southampton collapse by cataclysmic proportions, as Sunderland threatened to do at times during the first last night, Di Canio’s men aren’t going to create a succession of chances without Sessegnon.

That is a fact Sunderland are going to have to accept.

But they need to find a goal threat from somewhere. They cannot afford to again rely on set pieces and long-range efforts against the Saints, as they did last night.