SELECTION decisions are thin on the ground for Paolo Di Canio tomorrow.
As has been apparent throughout the bulk of Sunderland’s pre-season campaign, the majority of the Black Cats starting XI was pencilled in weeks ago by the head coach.
But the dilemma for Di Canio in the Premier League opener is who occupies the position in Sunderland’s goal.
Such has been the wholesale overhaul of Sunderland’s squad, the departure of Simon Mignolet has largely been brushed aside – primarily because it has helped to finance the spending spree.
Yet Mignolet is a major loss.
Last season, the £11million keeper was undoubtedly the difference between Sunderland slipping into the Championship and surviving in the top flight, albeit with a slightly red-faced conclusion to the campaign.
Selecting the right candidate to replace Mignolet is a major decision for Di Canio and one he has been guarded about during pre-season – Vito Mannone starting both games in the Barclays Asia Trophy, while Keiren Westwood was given the nod for the final friendly encounter against FC Midtjylland last week.
Westwood was always expected to be the new Sunderland number one after Mignolet’s departure and perhaps Di Canio has been practising some kidology during pre-season by ensuring the Republic of Ireland international avoids any complacency.
But Mannone has looked more than adequate competition in the friendly programme and the sight of either name on the team sheet tomorrow wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise.
The only real dilemmas at all for the start of Di Canio’s first full season in charge at the Stadium of Light are at the back.
A midfield quartet of Emanuele Giaccherini, Adam Johnson, Seb Larsson and Cabral has been consistent throughout pre-season, as has an attacking partnership of Jozy Altidore and Stephane Sessegnon.
Neither will the full-back berths harbour any surprises.
With Craig Gardner serving the final game of the three-match suspension earned at the tail end of last season, new boy Ondrej Celustka will surely be pitched straight into the side, with Jack Colback on the opposite flank.
Di Canio faces a quandary at centre-half though with Wes Brown absent.
Given a clear run, Di Canio would have favoured either Brown or Modibo Diakite to partner John O’Shea at the heart of his back four.
But like Brown, fitness is Diakite’s issue after playing just 20 minutes of Sunderland’s pre-season.
It is surely between Valentin Roberge and Carlos Cuellar to double up alongside O’Shea.
The French Bosman arrival must be the favourite, particularly after partnering O’Shea in Denmark last week, yet Cuellar has plenty of Premier League experience and that may be invaluable when attempting to contain a customer like Dimitar Berbatov.
Fulham boss Martin Jol looks likely to be more cautious in introducing his summer signings.
On-loan maverick Adel Taarabt is short on match fitness after being frozen out of QPR’s pre-season, while midfielder Derek Boateng is making his comeback after a year on the sidelines through injury.
And even if former Sunderland hero Darren Bent arrives in time to be registered for tomorrow’s game, it would be a major shock if he was thrust into the starting XI after being forced to train with Villa’s kids during the summer.
It is that superior fitness of Di Canio’s side which may well prove the difference this weekend.
Sunderland’s conditioning stood out decisively when facing their Premier League peers in the Barclays Asia Trophy, in Hong Kong.
And it could well be crucial in picking up points during the formative days of the season.
Sunderland certainly couldn’t have prepared much better. But now is the acid test of whether those lung-busting mornings on the training ground prove worthwhile.
Verdict: Home win