Sunderland boss David Moyes hopes that Wahbi Khazri will have an impact in the final weeks of the season – and insisted that his exclusion has never been about a lack of work-rate.
Moyes had previously said that Khazri had returned from pre-season short of match fitness, but, when pressed on the issue last month, the Scot said the Tunisian’s absence was about ball retention and a lack of end product.
The 26-year-old made his first start of 2017 against West Ham in Saturday’s 2-2 draw and delivered a crucial goal straight from a corner, as well as creating numerous opportunities for his team-mates.
Moyes hailed the Tunisian’s discipline as well as his output in the final third.
He said: “I do think Wahbi’s a very good player with a lot to offer and, if he gives us that level of performances, I’ll be more than happy.
“I thought he didn’t keep us the ball well enough (before), but I thought he kept the ball well against West Ham.
“He played in a disciplined fashion as well, which made him reliable for us without the ball, as well as with the ball.
“Wahbi’s work-rate for me has never been an issue. It’s not his work-rate – we want him to be someone who’s creative and makes things happen, makes the final pass. That’s what we need him in the team for.”
Moyes now hopes that Khazri can reproduce that form in the final six games of the season and help solve Sunderland’s chronic goal scoring problems.
He said: “We hope he produces that level of performance, that would be good. I think we’ve missed goals. We’ve tried various combinations trying to find ways of scoring, but we got a goal from a direct set-piece and we scrambled the second goal to get two each.
“Didier missed a good chance as well, which would have made it two each at the time. We had some good moments.
“I thought the players had been good in training all week, so, in a way, I was expecting a good performance. They’d looked different in training and they looked bright, quick and we were more like it in the performance.”
Despite that, the Black Cats boss was left bemoaning his players’ inability to prevent goals at the other end, West Ham twice scoring easily to take the lead.
Andre Ayew’s run into the box was not tracked for the opener just five minutes in, while James Collins stalled Sunderland’s growing momentum when he headed home unmarked from a corner two minutes into the second period.
Moyes had been well aware of the threat the Hammers posed from set pieces and was disappointed that the visitors were able to convert one of their few opportunities.
He said: “I thought the first goal was disappointing because we didn’t fill the box with enough defenders and midfield players when Carroll pulled the ball back.
“I had to see it again to see where people were, but we sort of got dragged open a bit there.
“The second goal was a corner, but, if you look, we conceded very few corner kicks, very few free-kicks to stop them getting the ball in the box because they were a big side.
“The only real occasion was just after half-time when they gave a free-kick against Denayer which I wasn’t sure was a free-kick. The ball came in from the free-kick and we put it out for a corner. From the corner, they scored and really, in truth, for most of the game apart from that, we had defended it pretty well.
“We went 2-1 down again, but credit to the lads for fighting back.”
Many Sunderland fans have been left bemoaning Khazri’s lack of action, but Moyes would not be drawn on whether he wished he had seen this level of performance earlier in the campaign.
He said: “I can only judge on what I see and I thought he played well.”