THIS was supposed to be the week when Sunderland’s preparations were fine-tuned.
This was supposed to be the week which Gus Poyet had dreamt of during those dark days back in February and March when Sunderland’s Premier League status hung by a thread.
This was supposed to be the week when the hundreds of supporters on the Algarve cast their gaze over a new-look Sunderland.
But this pre-season campaign is increasingly being dominated by what is not in place, rather than what already is.
Supporters have gone from being merely twitchy over the lack of incomings, to living in a fractious state combining both anger and panic. Worryingly, Poyet seems to share the sense of restless worry brewing among fans.
Two-and-a-half weeks before the season’s curtain raiser and Sunderland remain without at least five pieces of the jigsaw which will be needed.
Last week’s capture of Patrick van Aanholt was a step in the right direction and there was doubtless a sense of relief at finally having a left-back on the books.
But much more is needed.
Was it a protest team selection from Poyet in naming a starting XI entirely composed of members of the Under-21 squad? Possibly.
Certainly, Poyet’s original plan for the three friendlies in Portugal was for the members of his first-team squad to begin to get 90 minutes under their belts.
There was no plan for the club’s rookies to feature out here. Flying them out on Monday was very much a lastminute.com booking.
But even if Poyet was delivering a not particularly subtle message to the powers that be concerning the thinness of Sunderland’s squad - and surely they don’t need reminding - the selection last night was born as much out of necessity than a protest.
With a squad of just 20 out here on the Algarve, including three goalkeepers, it would have been a huge ask to deploy some of the same players on successive nights, when no member of the first-team squad is yet to complete 90 minutes.
The big hitters will get their turn tonight against Portugese top flight outfit CD Nacional, who should offer sterner resitance than Spanish Second Division side Recreativo de Huelva.
Yet last night was largely a wasted opportunity.
There were 45 minutes apiece for the likes of El-Hadji Ba, Alfred N’Diaye, Charis Mavrias, Valentin Roberge and most encouragingly Liam Bridcutt - making his first appearance of pre-season after recovering from injury.
But the whole purpose of having games on successive nights was to largely use a different XI of first-teamers for each outing.
As against Carlisle and Hartlepool last week, the U21s far from disgraced themselves. Quite the opposite, they were more than a match for Recreativo.
In a spell midway through the first half, in particular, they were well on top with the midfield trio of George Honeyman, Martin Smith and Liam Agnew controlling proceedings.
The problem was that they struggled to convert that promise into chances on an admittedly awful surface.
The only two genuine chances they created before the interval came within a matter of seconds.
Smith curled a right-footed free-kick from 25 yards which crashed against the bar, with keeper Ruben Galvez nowhere near it.
The ball came out to David Ferguson on the edge of the area who met it with a powerful angled left-footed drive which skimmed just past the far post.
Recreativo went desperately close themselves just after the half hour when Nunez scuffed a shot from just inside the area which richocheted into the path of Victor Diaz, with his back to goal eight yards out.
Diaz managed to get a back-heel on target which beat keeper Joel Dixon, but not Agnew who cleared off the line.
Poyet introduced a handful of first-teamers from the bench at the break, with both N’Diaye and Mavrias producing positive contributions.
N’Diaye, who will hope his slim prospects of a Sunderland future have been improved by his place on the plane to Portugal, looked far sharper than he had against either Darlington or Carlisle and produced several driving runs at the Recreativo defence.
Mavrias was equally positive with the ball at his feet and it was his burst which finally provided a moment of note for the Black Cats in the second half.
The Greek winger got in behind the Recreativo defence and was clipped by Fran Avila as he bore down on goal.
Mikael Mandron took the responsibility from the spot and calmly smashed it down the middle, with goalkeeper Ruben Alvez diving fruitlessly to his left.
Prior to that, Recreativo had hit the woodwork when Menosse escaped from the Sunderland defence to meet Montoro’s raking crossfield ball and cannoned a header against the bar.
The Spanish side should then have levelled within five minutes of Mandron’s winner when Black Cats keeper Joel Dixon flapped at Jorge’s free-kick from the left.
The ball came out to Aitor, just inside the area, with the goal at his mercy, but he sent his shot soaring over the top.
The lack of first-teamers or general lack of action didn’t spoil the mood among the merry masses in the stands, who relished the opportunity to serenade the bulk of Poyet’s squad watching from the stands.
But creative songs about the new signings who ARE at the club offer scant consolation.
Without wishing to sound like a broken record... again, the much-needed signings can’t come quickly enough.
RECREATIVO: Alvez, Victor Diaz, Menosse, Juanan, Fernando Vega, Dimas, Montoro, Nunez, Adan, Cabrera, Zambrano. Booked: Jorge (88)
SUNDERLAND: Dixon, Ferguson, Beadling, McNamee (Roberge 46), Cartwright, Agnew (Bridcutt 46), Smith (N’Diaye 46), Honeyman (Watmore 74, Lawson 85)), Lawson (Ba 46), Watmore (Mavrias 46), Mandron. Sub not used: Mannone. Booked: Beadling (81)