Martin O’Neill’s tunnel vision

Sunderland's Craig Gardner in action in against Helsingborg.
Sunderland's Craig Gardner in action in against Helsingborg.
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A GREYING Henrik Larsson waited patiently in the tunnel of his home-town club while Martin O’Neill conducted his post-match interview duties on the touchline.

After O’Neill concluded his comments on a third defeat in four pre-season outings for Sunderland, the Black Cats boss spotted his former Celtic marksman and warmly embraced the deadly Swedish legend.

It took O’Neill a matter of seconds before he asked Larsson whether he could still play. It was a tongue-in-cheek quip, probably laced with a trace of hope.

Sunderland aren’t yet desperate enough to bring a 40-year-old predator out of retirement, but as the clock ticks on towards August 18, the summer-long need to bolster the front-line is becoming more and more pressing.

Wittering on about Sunderland’s deficiencies up front has become something of a broken record.

At least, it is not as if O’Neill is blinded to the problem. While those of a nervous disposition are already fretting at the lack of incomings, the Sunderland boss will surely make the required acquisitions within the next fortnight.

But again it was that lack of ruthlessness in the penalty area on Saturday which was Sunderland’s undoing.

The Wearsiders were hardly spectacular, but there was an improvement from the previous friendly outing against Hartlepool United – O’Neill’s men moving the ball around better and at least firing a few crosses into the box for the opening hour before they faded badly in the finale.

James McClean and Seb Larsson, who both looked relatively sharp on their first appearance of pre-season, predictably gave Sunderland a more natural shape and far better threat from the flanks, while Craig Gardner – probably the pick of the bunch for the Black Cats - unleashed several testing efforts from range.

As expected, Helsingborgs were the sharper, fitter and more dangerous side after already completing more than half of their domestic campaign.

But the reigning Swedish champions still rested several first-team regulars and that was the most telling indictment. Sunderland were simply unable to profit from the handful of opportunities they mustered against a brittle defence.

Three defeats in pre-season all correspond with a blank in front of goal. It is hardly a complex equation.

But although there is still a glaring missing piece, O’Neill can at least draw comfort from the sight of the bulk of his jigsaw coming together after McClean, Larsson and John O’Shea made their pre-season bows, with Stephane Sessegnon set to return at Derby County on Wednesday.

Gardner occupied Sessegnon’s role in behind Fraizer Campbell on Saturday, with McClean and Larsson on their natural flanks before swapping sides in the closing stages of the first half.

It was the two widemen who combined to create Sunderland’s first effort on goal in the 18th minute after the latter shrugged off the attentions of ex-Tottenham full-back Erik Edman and lifted the ball to the back stick from the right-hand by-line.

McClean waited patiently for the ball to drop, but he couldn’t get his body over it and he shanked his volley high and wide from eight yards out.

Only a superb goal-line block from Kieran Richardson denied Helsingborgs the opener in the 26th minute after Sessegnon-clone Kaka pounced on Carlos Cuellar’s attempted interception midway inside the Sunderland half.

Kaka drove towards the penalty area before seeing his shot blocked by a combination of Titus Bramble and Keiren Westwood.

But then the ball dribbled ominously into the path of David Accam with the goal at his mercy. Richardson was alert to the danger though, racing back and blocking Accam’s low effort in the goalmouth.

Campbell saw a far post header blocked by Edman from McClean’s soaring cross before Gardner tried his luck from 25 yards with a low dipping shot that required a smart parry from Helsingborgs stopper Daniel Andersson.

Helsingborgs pushed hard for an opener as the first half drew to a close and they almost found the breakthrough in the 40th minute.

Rachid Bouaouzan slipped in the unmarked Kaka down the left-hand side of the area with a clever reverse pass and the diminutive striker let fly with a curling shot across goal.

Westwood was agile enough to parry away double-handed before Bouaouzan horribly sliced the rebound wide of the mark.

It concluded a solid half for the Republic of Ireland international, who was one of three players withdrawn at the interval – Simon Mignolet replacing him while Connor Wickham and Matt Kilgallon came on for Larsson and Jack Colback.

It prompted a reshuffle with Richardson pushed forward onto the left wing with Kilgallon at full-back, McClean moved to the right and Wickham partnering Campbell up front.

Campbell had made little impression as a lone striker, but within three minutes of the restart he combined with Wickham for what should have been the breakthrough for Sunderland.

After receiving the return-ball from a one-two with Campbell, Wickham had just Andersson to beat, but he took a touch to control and that allowed Emil Krafth time to race back and block the 19-year-old’s shot behind.

O’Shea, who provided a decent outlet going forward from right-back, glanced a header over the top before Gardner’s shot from 25 yards was too hot for Andersson to handle.

Wickham was onto the rebound, but was flagged offside as his shot was pushed onto the post by Andersson.

The 19-year-old was again in the thick of the action just after the hour mark after being slipped in down the left-hand channel by Gardner.

Wickham ghosted past the half-hearted challenge of half-time substitute May Mahlangu and unleashed a snorting left-foot shot which was tipped over the top by Andersson.

The effects of an intense week on the training field took their toll over the closing stages though as Sunderland looked jaded, even when the youngsters were introduced from the bench.

Helsingborgs took full advantage with two goals inside three minutes.

First, substitute Alfred Finnbogason struck a nonchalant shot on the turn from 25 yards which curled into the net off Mignolet’s left-hand post.

And then moments later, fellow replacement Mahlangu lashed home a low, hard second from 15 yards out after his initial effort was blocked.

The game dwindled to a goalless conclusion for the Black Cats, who must hope for better in this week’s East Midlands double header where O’Neill will be looking for far more encouraging signs from the performance.

That is not the priority for O’Neill this week though. Everyone knows where his main focus lies.

HELSINGBORGS: Andersson (Linde 75), Bergholtz, Nordmark, Bouaouzan (Finnbogason 62), Edman (Uronen 75), Krafth, Baffo, Acheampong (Sundin 46), Kaka (Ohlander 46), Accam (Mahlangu 46), Bjorkman (Kvist 46). Sub not used: Sadiku. Booked: Finnbogason (90)

SUNDERLAND: Westwood (Mignolet 46), O’Shea (Laing 69), Bramble, Cuellar, Richardson (Knott 69), Larsson (Kilgallon 46), Cattermole (Reed 78), Colback (Wickham 46), McClean (Lynch 78), Gardner, Campbell (Noble 69). Booked: Richardson (37), Gardner (64), Reed (90)