MIDWAY through the first half, Paolo Di Canio sat crouched on the Selhurst Park touchline with his hand covering his eyes.
The Sunderland head coach wasn’t the only one who couldn’t bear to watch.
For far too long yesterday, against humble opposition in the shape of Crystal Palace, Sunderland laboured with those disjointed, confidence-drained habits which were a characteristic of last season.
It looked like the almost-forgotten hero of Steven Fletcher had spared Sunderland a draining fortnight of questions over this side’s direction.
But the self-destruct button was well and truly hammered by Di Canio’s first lieutenant, John O’Shea, who was horrifyingly culpable of losing his concentration and costing Sunderland a point.
Nevertheless, Fletcher’s instant impact on his Sunderland comeback showed that if Di Canio’s “revolution” is to dramatically change the fortunes of this club, then the fit-again 26-year-old has a significant part to play.
The enforced absence of Jozy Altidore, due to a hamstring strain, from the team sheets before kick-off immediately reduced optimism among those travelling supporters bathed in the Selhurst Park sunshine.
Stephane Sessegnon’s omission was entirely predictable, but to lose both of the front two from the opening two Premier League games, forced Di Canio to name two strikers whose impact in red and white has been limited to potential alone.
And there was almost a sense that the absence of those two high-profile absentees had rubbed off on Sunderland in the early stages.
While it was a third successive game where the Black Cats had conceded from a set piece, it was the ragged aura surrounding Di Canio’s side in the opening stages which set just as many alarm bells ringing.
Sunderland were unable to keep possession for longer than a couple of passes and resorted to hopeful lofted chips down the channels which invariably drifted aimlessly behind.
It took until almost until midway through the first half for Sunderland to improve modestly, with Palace looking content to soak up the pressure and hit the visitors on the break.
And when that happened, it was those striking concerns which came back to haunt Sunderland – Ji caught by uncertainty when the obvious solution was to throw himself at a diving header four yards out.
On the rare occasions he saw the ball, Adam Johnson looked a threat to the creaky Palace defence down the right, but, without the punch in the penalty area, Sunderland’s efforts came to nought.
That Di Canio introduced Fletcher for Ji at the interval came as little surprise and the South Korean had obviously received a verbal earbashing from the Black Cats boss – heading out alone, ahead of his team-mates, to take his seat in the dug-out for the second half.
The Scotland international clearly wasn’t match-fit; the usually reliable touch and control needing more minutes to bear fruit.
But Fletcher possesses something that arguably none of Sunderland’s other strikers can boast – a natural goalscorers’ instinct.
Fletcher started the move which led to his equaliser, but didn’t rest on his laurels on the left-hand touchline, bursting back into the box to get on the end of Jack Colback’s pinpoint cross.
Despite the flurry of new boys, it is Sunderland’s top predator who remains their great hope.
On the evidence of yesterday, Sunderland need all the hope they can get.
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