THE CLOCKS may chime at 3pm on Saturday for the start of the Premier League season, but Sunderland’s alarm call is set 27 hours earlier.
More than a fortnight remains until the transfer deadline and if it takes every second of the window for Sunderland to land the best possible recruits, then Martin O’Neill is fully justified in not panicking over incomings.
But, in the short term, there is an ominous air around this weekend’s trip to Arsenal unless Sunderland can bolster their squad before Friday’s noon registration deadline.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that Sunderland were without a natural left-winger and fielded an overweight Asamoah Gyan on the opening day at Liverpool last season and still came away with a more than creditable point.
O’Neill has also bucked the odds with these players before and instilled a sense of belief and self-confidence in a squad who had sunk to the lower reaches of the Premier League table on his arrival.
But without fresh faces on Saturday, Sunderland’s line-up will be an even weaker attacking force than the one which found the net just three times in the final seven outings of last season.
For all the faults of the mercurial Nicklas Bendtner, the Dane’s return to parent club Arsenal weakens Sunderland’s hand, while Stephane Sessegnon will be far from the required physical state if he does recover in time for the trip to the Emirates.
If Sunderland continue to toil in making a breakthrough during the stagnant window this week, then there have to be concerns over the Black Cats’ chances on Saturday after an all-too-familiar blankety blank at the King Power Stadium.
Thankfully, O’Neill is not blind to Sunderland’s offensive deficiencies and remains desperate to land his summer-long priorities of at least one new frontman and players capable of adding greater creativity to the midfield.
But Wolves’ ludicrous asking price for Steven Fletcher leaves Sunderland searching for suitable alternatives, rather than putting the final touches to a deal that would have fulfilled a minimum requirement for the Wearsiders.
Predictably, the dress rehearsal for the Premier League campaign panned out as three of the other five friendly outings had done – a defeat after failing to find the net at the other end.
Sunderland’s attack was laboured, sluggish and lacking in invention without Sessegnon.
James McClean worked tirelessly to engineer a breakthrough and his late header looked to have crossed the line before it was palmed away by Foxes keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
But McClean too often had too much to do by himself.
Fraizer Campbell was unable to hold the ball up and needs the comfort of a strike partner, while Kieran Richardson – deployed in the hole for the first half before moving to left-back after the break – never had the same attacking threat as he showed at Derby in midweek.
Leicester were by far the more dangerous side, particularly in the first half as winger Ben Marshall and direct frontman Jamie Vardy put the Sunderland defence on the back foot before the latter limped off just before the interval.
Sunderland kept the ball better in a more even second half, yet it wasn’t until after Leicester substitute Tom Parkes bundled home from a corner in the 72nd minute that the Black Cats looked a goal threat.
Minutes on the pitch, rather than rehearsing any plan of attack for Arsenal, was clearly O’Neill’s priority on the return to his former club though.
That much was evident by a starting XI which bore little resemblance to the one likely to line up at the Emirates, coupled with a variety of positions for those who remained on the pitch in the second half.
O’Neill began with Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon, who had both missed last Wednesday’s draw with Derby through injury, at centre-half, John O’Shea at left-back and Craig Gardner at right-back.
Ahmed Elmohamady started on the right of midfield and it was the Egyptian who sparked Sunderland’s best first-half move in the 10th minute when he broke positively from his own half and laid it off to the overlapping Gardner, on the right-hand touchline.
Gardner’s cross was met on the penalty spot by a powerful header from Campbell, who couldn’t keep his effort down and it sailed a couple of feet over the top.
Leicester then began to make inroads into Sunderland’s back-line – Jermaine Beckford beating the offside trap in the 17th minute to Vardy’s through-ball to get the wrong side of the defence.
Beckford descended on goal from an angle and his cross-cum-shot was deflected by Gardner towards the net, only for Keiren Westwood to readjust superbly and parry away.
It was the first of a number of impressive saves from Westwood, who was one of the few Sunderland players to stake his claim for a starting spot at Arsenal.
Marshall sent a free-kick just past the post moments later and continued to plague the Sunderland defence in a floating role, sending a right-footed shot just over the top after cutting inside from the right.
The ex-Stoke winger was again at the centre of the action in the 28th minute, surging into the box to the left of goal and hitting a shot to the far post which Westwood beat away double-handed.
Sunderland finally tested Schmeichel in the closing moments of the first half when Gardner struck an inswinging free-kick from the left of the area, which the Danish stopper had to parry high to his left.
Leicester immediately counter-attacked and won a corner of their own, going desperately close to an opener when Ritchie De Laet’s glancing header from six yards out was cleared off the line by Richardson.
Both O’Neill and opposite number Nigel Pearson made changes at the interval – Sunderland introducing Carlos Cuellar, Seb Larsson and David Meyler with Bramble, Kilgallon and Elmohamady making way.
Cuellar partnered O’Shea in central defence, with Richardson moving to left-back, Meyler coming in at right-back and Gardner pushing forward into a more familiar central midfield role.
McClean blasted a shot into the midriff of Schmeichel following a goalmouth scramble in the 55th minute, but Leicester still looked a more dangerous side.
Impressive half-time sub Anthony Knockaert beat Richardson too easily down the right of Sunderland’s box and drove a shot towards the far post that was again kept out by Westwood.
The Ireland stopper had to be alert again moments later to tip Marshall’s 25-yard effort over the top.
When Westwood was finally beaten, it was in rather tame fashion after Marshall’s corner from the left was allowed to bobble across the face and was stabbed home from six yards out by Parkes.
O’Neill introduced youngsters John Egan, Blair Adams and Ryan Noble and it coincided with Sunderland finally discovering a sense of urgency in the closing stages.
Twice in the 80th minute, Sunderland went desperately close to an equaliser.
Larsson’s inswinging free-kick from the left made its way through a crowded box, just evading the head of Egan before crashing back off the crossbar.
In the scramble that followed, Cuellar chipped the ball to the back post where McClean took his time to pick his spot with a header which looked to have crossed the line before it was palmed away by Schmeichel. But the out-of-position linesman kept his flag down.
Jack Colback then tried his luck with three minutes to go from the edge of the area, but the midfielder’s left-foot shot was turned behind at the near post by Schmeichel.
The elusive goal never arrived, as has been the case throughout pre-season.
Whether O’Neill can find the necessary recruits to alleviate that situation this week, may well decide the fashion in which Sunderland begin his first season in charge.
LEICESTER: Schmeichel, De Laet (Schlupp 46), Konchesky (Parkes 68), Drinkwater (King 46), Morgan, Marshall, Vardy (Nugent 43), Dyer (Knockaert 46), James (Danns 46), Beckford (Waghorn 46), Moore. Subs not used: Logan, Gallagher
SUNDERLAND: Westwood, Gardner, O’Shea (Egan 76), Kilgallon (Cuellar 46), Bramble (Meyler 46), Elmohamady (Larsson 46), Colback, Cattermole (Knott 82), McClean, Richardson (Adams 76), Campbell (Noble 76), McClean. Sub not used: Mignolet
Att: 9,293 (1,117 away)