Chris Young’s Sunderland big-match verdict: Argentinian arrivals show their worth

Nacho Scocco.
Nacho Scocco.
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BARRING the late catastrophe of injury or suspension, Sunderland’s Argentine contingent will occupy a place on the bench at Wembley in 13 days time.

Oscar Ustari will make way for the hero of the Capital One Cup semi-final, Vito Mannone.

Santiago Vergini will bow to the experience and proven quality of Wes Brown when he returns from suspension, albeit the ex-England international’s injury record will give the centre-half hope of a Wembley run-out.

And Nacho Scocco’s lack of match fitness is likely to count against him, with the forward primed to offer a game-changing option among the substitutes.

But the three January arrivals provided encouraging signs in Sunderland’s continued love affair with the cup competitions on Saturday that they will offer Gus Poyet genuine strength in depth.

Too often, that’s merely a sound-bite for players and managers to trot out when their ranks are depleted.

It’s more a case that there are bodies on the books, rather than an actual fierce fight for places or adequate provisions for cover.

Poyet’s team selections have been Exhibit A in suggesting that he was far from convinced by the depth of the squad put together by the dismissed Paolo Di Canio and fellow Italian flop Roberto De Fanti.

The ex-Brighton boss experimented with formations and personnel upon arrival at the Stadium of Light, but, as he learned the strengths and weaknesses of Sunderland’s roster, a pattern was quickly developed of the starting line-up stemming from the same 14-15 players.

January will hopefully have changed that.

The battle between Liam Bridcutt and Lee Cattermole promises to be an intriguing one and, given the performance of the latter on Saturday, it’s not one which the £2.5million new boy will win easily.

But it’s the early impact of his three fellow South Americans which will have most pleased Poyet. Sunderland’s history with the likes of Marcos Angeleri, Cristian Riveros and Paolo Da Silva shows how hard that can be.

Vergini was the stand-out performer of the trio after a thoroughly assured display alongside John O’Shea.

The 25-year-old endured an inevitable few anxious moments in his first Premier League appearance against Hull seven days earlier and faced a steep learning curve in the physical qualities required of centre-halves in England after going up against Nikica Jelavic.

But Poyet rates Vergini highly and that showed against the Saints, as he looked far more composed, confident and comfortable – demonstrated by a superb crossfield pass to Andrea Dossena.

Vergini can defend, too, after producing a crucial last-gasp interception with Rickie Lambert waiting to tuck the ball home from point-blank range.

His fellow Argentine international, Ustari, can boast more experience of European football after spells in Spain with Getafe and Almeria, but the Premier League is an entirely different beast, particularly when specimens like Lambert are charging in for crosses.

Yet Ustari dominated his area – punching cleanly from the often wayward deliveries which the Saints propelled into the box and showing guts to provide an excellent interception just after the half-hour mark when Adam Lallana delivered a dangerous low ball across the face.

The only real save the 27-year-old had to make – thanks to the wayward finishing of Lallana and particularly Lambert – was James Ward-Prowse’s scuffed effort during the first half, which was gathered comfortably.

Scocco was the most subdued of the three, but that was understandable, given he had gone two months without a competitive game and had only just begun his pre-season in Brazil when Sunderland’s £4million bid was accepted.

The 28-year-old still managed to show flashes of movement and control though and will benefit from getting those minutes under his belt.

But it wasn’t just the new boys who set out to impress.

Craig Gardner may not be everybody’s cup of tea on the terraces, but his thunderbolt winning goal epitomised why Steve Bruce splashed out £5million on the Brummie almost three years ago.

That stunning strike came after Poyet had pushed him further forward during the second half and, from then on, Gardner was excellent – harrying and hassling Southampton’s defenders and looking to pounce on any loose balls.

While Gardner – linked with a loan move to a host of Championship clubs yesterday – is unlikely to remain in the starting XI against either Arsenal or Manchester City in the next two games, that performance is likely to secure him a spot on the bench for the cup final.

The same applies to Emanuele Giaccherini, who, despite showing signs of a lack of confidence in front of goal, was always industrious and looking to take defenders on.

Connor Wickham was also keen to make an impression after replacing Scocco and showed some excellent hold-up play, albeit he was guilty of selfishness after failing to play in Fabio Borini when Sunderland enjoyed a three-on-one on the counter-attack.

And then there was Cattermole, who showed that the circus of transfer deadline day had predictably not impacted at all on his commitment to Sunderland.

Cattermole, who needed treatment afterwards following a nasty late challenge from Jay Rodriguez, is already penciled in to the starting XI for the cup final, given that Bridcutt is cup-tied.

But the Teessider wants to remain first-choice in the Premier League too, and he was the one who set the tempo for a deserved victory for the Black Cats.

On several occasions, Cattermole found himself in a tight spot, yet wriggled out of trouble confidently before spreading the play up field.

It was typical of the disciplined and controlled performances which Poyet has brought out of him.

Cattermole’s attitude was prevalent throughout Sunderland’s ranks, but the same could not be said of Southampton.

Manager Mauricio Pochettino set that tone by leaving out key figures Rodriguez and Morgan Schneiderlin – a decision that understandably baffled Saints fans.

What was Pochettino resting them for?

Southampton are not going to finish in the top four, he doesn’t want them to qualify for the Europa League, so why not go with a full-strength side against a Sunderland outfit, who were obviously going to be much-changed?

If Sunderland had been out of the League Cup and sitting handsomely in the Premier League, there would have been far more than 16,000-odd inside the Stadium of Light.

It was only when Schneiderlin and Rodriguez were introduced from the bench that Southampton emerged from that apathy.

But credit to Poyet’s side for ignoring the concerns over fixture pile-up.

They played to win.

If they can secure a second trip to Wembley this season, then that commitment among Sunderland’s fringe players will have been well-rewarded.

Twitter @youngsunecho