SUNDERLAND go into the new campaign on the back of a victorious pre-season game which was low on scoreline but seemed high on pluses for Paolo Di Canio’s men.
Keeper Keiren Westwood – given his first start of the summer – recorded the Black Cats’ first clean sheet of the brief friendly programme.
And, in the first half in particular, Sunderland sparkled against opposition who are early-season leaders of the Danish Superliga.
Adam Johnson’s solitary, early strike – a lovely finish worthy of winning any game – was all that separated the sides at the final whistle.
But as well as Johnson’s goal and Westwood’s clean sheet, there was the debut of Modibo Diakite – impressive as a second-half substitute – and more good work by new signings Valentin Roberge, Emanuele Giaccherini, Cabral and Jozy Altidore in a very competitive workout.
Di Canio himself didn’t see it that way.
The head coach thought his players were lethargic and sloppy and had no hesitation in telling them so.
How much of that was kidology on the manager’s part was hard to tell – there is a possibility he was trying to avoid any sense of complacency creeping into his players ahead of the new season.
But perhaps it is an indication of sky-high standards on his part and, if that’s the case, then maybe it’s no bad thing.
Certainly, the handful of Sunderland fans who made the arduous trip to the relatively obscure corner of Denmark were happy with a game which also saw no fresh injuries from the game – although it did look as though Jack Colback had been red-carded at one point, only for the referee to change his mind and allow him to be subbed.
Di Canio made three changes to the side which started both games against Spurs and Manchester City in Hong Kong last month.
First-choice elect Westwood would have been mightily relieved to have been given the nod in goal after Vito Mannone’s double start in Asia.
And the Irishman started in front of a reshuffled back four, with Carlos Cuellar and Roberge replacing Craig Gardner and Wes Brown.
Di Canio kept the same front six which played in the Barclays Asia Trophy tournament – perhaps hinting that will be his preferred midfield and attack once the new season gets under way.
The selection of the Danish side for pre-season opposition was not an obvious one.
But the home team showed as early as the third minute that they would be competitive – when Westwood had to get down smartly to save a shot from Marco Larsen, from 15 yards out, after a knockdown from Frank Kristensen.
Sunderland took the lead, though, in the seventh minute when Altidore backheeled neatly into the path of Johnson after good work by Giaccherini and Stephane Sessegnon.
The American’s deft touch teed up the England winger in front of goal and Johnson curled a delicious left-foot shot into the top right-hand corner of Jonas Lossi’s goal from 18 yards out.
If the handful of travelling Sunderland fans in the ground – credit on them for making the trip – thought that would see the floodgates open, they were mistaken.
A war of attrition ensued with both sides putting in hard work closing each other down.
But, in the 24th minute, Westwood made a brilliant save to deny Kristensen an equaliser from a powerful point-blank header.
Sunderland came close to doubling their lead three minutes afterwards when Altidore was fouled on the left of the home side’s “D”, and Seb Larsson’s rasping free-kick cleared the wall but was driven straight at keeper Lossi.
The Danes instantly replied through left-back Jesper Juelsgard who drove a low shot across the goal-line which almost sneaked into the far corner.
It had been an attractive opening half-hour for a pre-season friendly.
And, though the rest of the half produced little in the way of goalscoring opportunities for either side, Sunderland rarely looked troubled.
Just before the interval, the tricky Pione Sisto had lashed a shot just wide.
And he did better after the break with a low side-footed shot from a pull-back but, once again, Westwood moved quickly and got down well to keep danger at bay.
That was the only real talking point in a scrappier period of play that tooks us up the 58th minute when Cabral was replaced by El-Hadji Ba.
On the hour mark, Midtjylland changed their entire team – they have a league game at the weekend – and when play resumed Sunderland midfielder Larsson advanced ahead of the home defence but fired wide.
Shortly afterwards, Connor Wickham replaced the still goalless Altidore and found it equally hard going up front.
There was complete confusion as the game reached towards its last quarter-of-an-hour when Colback appeared to be sent off by referee Mads-Kristoffer Kristoffersen.
But the official appeared to change his mind – allowing Gardner to come on as a replacement instead – something which appeared to be a huge let-off for the Black Cats, who cannot afford to lose another full-back.
The game threatened to sparkle briefly in the closing stages, with Sessegnon weaving his magic in the box, only to hit the crossbar from 10 yards when he seemed certain to score, with substitute David Moberg Karlsson testing the keeper on the rebound.
But, in the end, Sunderland had to settle for victory by just the one-goal margin
The victory seemed to please everyone connected with Sunderland expect Di Canio – but the Italian will know that next weekend, when Fulham visit Wearside on the Premier League’s opening day, it all begins for real.
And, for him, “being good enough” is simply not good enough.
MIDTJYLLAND: Lossi, Juelsgard, Olsen, Sviatchenko, Larsen, Kirstensen, Banggaard, Sisto, Nielesen, Uzochukwu, Igboun. Subs: Haugaard, Lauridsen, Solgaard, Nattested, Romer, Gemmer, Lauridsen, Onuachu, Moller, Oliseh, Odeyemi, Ashiru, Owolagi.
SUNDERLAND: Westwood, Cuellar, Colback (sub Gardner 74), Roberge (sub Diakite 71), O’Shea (c), Cabral (sub Ba 58), Larsson, Johnson (sub Moberg Karlsson 72), Giaccherini (sub Mandron 85), Sessegnon, Altidore (sub Wickham 64). Subs not used: Vaughan, Mannone.