Feature: Di Canio has clear mind on Sunderland selection

Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio reacts during the final match against Manchester City at the Barclays Asia Trophy in Hong Kong Saturday July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio reacts during the final match against Manchester City at the Barclays Asia Trophy in Hong Kong Saturday July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
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PAOLO DI CANIO shied away from experimentation during Sunderland’s participation in the Barclays Asia Trophy last week by naming unchanged sides for both games in Hong Kong.

But will the complexion of Sunderland’s starting XI still be the same against Fulham in two-and-a-half weeks? The Echo’s Chris Young reports.

INDECISION over selection for the Premier League opener doesn’t seem to be a problem for Paolo Di Canio.

From the moment the team sheets sprang off the printer in the Hong Kong Stadium last Wednesday, the Sunderland head coach gave the strongest possible indication that he was well aware of his first-choice XI to face Fulham on August 17.

The prominent among Sunderland’s summer signings were all included in the side which started both games in the Barclays Asia Trophy, as were the faithful descendants of the old regime.

But with only one more friendly for Sunderland’s players to mark their mark, where do Di Canio’s selection dilemmas lie in the next two-and-a-half weeks?

Certainly, further additions to the squad could change matters.

As Di Canio told the Echo out in Hong Kong, there is a very definite list of requirements he still wants addressing before the window slams shut - two full-backs and a creative midfielder.

The continued absence of a specialist full-back in the squad - if the ostracised Phil Bardsley is not counted - remains the biggest concern among supporters, primarily because Sunderland have historically struggled to address the positions on either side of the defence.

Seeing deals for Gino Peruzzi, Benjamin Mendy and Lucas Orban fall through, plus Tottenham’s refusal to sell Danny Rose, has only heightened those worries.

The problem for Di Canio now is that even if he does sign a full-back or two before Fulham visit the Stadium of Light, then there is precious little time to integrate them into the fold.

It was a concern Di Canio alluded to when explaining Sunderland’s decision to end their pursuit of Peruzzi on medical grounds.

Sunderland need someone to come into that position and hit the ground running.

They need a right-back more than a left-back too, with Craig Gardner serving the final game of a three-match ban on the opening day against Fulham.

Yet if Sunderland can make it through the Cottagers clash, Gardner and Jack Colback could well find themselves in the full-back slots if the new recruits take their time settling or are deadline-busting arrivals.

Is that a worry?

Certainly, Colback is arguably as strong at left-back as he is in midfield and shepherded Aaron Lennon superbly in the Barclays Asia Trophy - although admittedly the Spurs winger couldn’t use his pace on such a sorry surface.

And while Gardner had several rushes of blood at right-back last season, he still played there more than in midfield and produced some excellent performances.

Long-term, Sunderland undoubtedly need specialists, but in the immediate term, neither stop-gap measure is a cause for sleepless nights.

The make-up of the other two members of the back four is far more predictable.

John O’Shea will surely be Sunderland’s skipper this season and is the organiser of the defence, while Wes Brown adds the Rolls Royce element to the back-line.

Di Canio freely admits that he wasn’t planning anything around Brown.

In fairness, neither were supporters.

Everyone had accepted that the 33-year-old would receive a cheque in the post from Sunderland to bring down the curtain on his playing career.

Everyone that is apart from Brown himself.

Suddenly, he has not just been thrust back into contention in the squad, but into the starting XI as well.

O’Shea and Bosman arrival Modibo Diakite was expected to be Di Canio’s first-choice partnership, with Carlos Cuellar and Valentin Roberge offering back-up.

But the hamstring strain sustained by Diakite on the fourth day of the pre-season schedule, coupled by Brown’s miraculous return to fitness, has brought back that all-ex Manchester United central defensive partnership.

Di Canio continues to want to test Brown’s resilience. That is why he kept the former England international on the mud-bath pitch for the full 90 minutes against Manchester City on Saturday.

But with no full-backs yet on board and Diakite only resuming training with the main group again today, the defensive line is decided.

It is a similar story in midfield, at least until Di Canio can sign that midfielder capable of “unlocking the doors” as the Black Cats boss put it.

Seb Larsson will be the most vulnerable if and when that player is brought on board, with Cabral shining in the Far East.

The former Basel man showed himself capable of playing a bit, together with possessing a tigerish nature in the tackle, and he has certainly not been brought in to make up the numbers.

Neither are the two wide midfield slots in any doubt, with Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson both very much Di Canio favourites and looking sharp in the Barclays Asia Trophy.

Larsson is the one in jeopardy and he is not a playmaker figure. In truth, he has only been a central midfielder for one season.

But the Swede will provide maximum effort and won’t surrender his place easily, even if Di Canio can recruit a linchpin in the middle of the park.

Like the wingers, Sunderland’s two up front look assured of their places for Fulham, even at this stage.

Stephane Sessegnon has reaped the benefits of a tough pre-season programme and seems to be revelling in the philosophy Di Canio is attempting to implement.

Sunderland could still be tempted to offload Sessegnon should they receive an acceptable offer for the Benin international.

But with Steven Fletcher likely to miss the start of the season and Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won still to prove themselves for the Black Cats consistently, it would be foolhardy for Sunderland to offload Sessegnon now.

When Fletcher returns, last season’s top scorer may well form an effective partnership with Jozy Altidore and undoubtedly is a more prolific figure than the frequently wasteful Sessegnon.

Yet Sessegnon offers something different and that contrast could be crucial, even if he enters the fray from the substitute’s bench.

Altidore has been bought as the attack’s figurehead too and although he missed a succession of chances against Spurs seven days ago, he is Di Canio’s big goal hope.

Arguably, the only big selection decision Di Canio has to make for Fulham is who starts the campaign as his number one goalkeeper.

The presumption was that Keiren Westwood would be first-choice after the departure of Simon Mignolet.

Supporters thought it, reporters thought it and surely Westwood thought it.

But Di Canio gave a strong hint from his unchanged selection in Hong Kong of his preference for Vito Mannone, with the £2million arrival starting both games.

Perhaps Di Canio is wary of the confident and bubbly Westwood becoming complacent by thrusting him into the first-choice XI during pre-season.

Yet Mannone did little wrong in the two outings, making two superb saves against Spurs to deny Emmanuel Adebayor and then Jermain Defoe.

Maybe, like seemingly the rest of the side, Di Canio has already made his decision and put his backing behind Mannone to complete the jigsaw for Fulham.

It appears bizarre to have so much of the team finalised so early during pre-season.

But from the very first moment he stepped into the job, Di Canio has had a grand blueprint that he has been desperate to implement.

Whether it works or not cannot be known for several months, yet Di Canio is no ditherer.

He knows what he wants, and he is making sure his players know it too.