THE RETURN of Sunderland’s walking wounded is supposed to produce several extra additions to the win column over the festive period.
Gus Poyet hopes that having the likes of Ricky Alvarez, Emanuele Giaccherini and Billy Jones back in the picture will make the difference from converting draws into wins.
The Sunderland boss has seen his side happily manage to keep their points tally ticking over while they have been down to the bare bones, so a few extra bodies and a touch of added-on quality won’t do any harm.
That’s the idea anyway.
But there is a big gulf between being physically fit and match fit. The evidence was striking last night, as Sebastian Coates was asked to perform the near-impossible.
The rustiness in the heart of the back four, coupled with several heavy sets of legs, saw Sunderland’s resilience ebb away as they suffered their second heaviest defeat of the campaign and saw a four-game unbeaten run come to an abrupt conclusion.
There was no disgrace in that. After the lethargy which plagued them earlier in the campaign, Manchester City now look back to being genuine title contenders, with their confidence clearly boosted by last month’s Champions League victory over Bayern Munich.
But with a fully-fit back four might that outcome have been different? It perhaps wouldn’t have been so comfortable for City as it was.
You had to feel a little sorry for Coates.
The Uruguayan has barely played a competitive game in the last 18 months, let alone this season.
Circumstances dictated that Poyet had to turn to the Liverpool man – the knock to Wes Brown, the continued absence of Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt, plus the loanee’s ineligibility against his parent club this Saturday – almost forced his selection.
But to be pitched into the starting line-up after recovering from a thigh problem without the odd outing for the Under-21s, or a few minutes as a substitute, was tough.
To do so against a striker of such outstanding quality as Sergio Aguero made Coates’ task horrendously difficult.
Even the majority of the home supporters applauded the removal of Aguero with 15 minutes to go after the Argentine had done the damage with such evident quality.
If there is a discussion to be had over whether Aguero or Diego Costa is the Premier League’s best striker, then the City man won that battle hands-down in a four-day period of judging.
While Aguero skipped past Coates’ challenge far too easily for the equaliser – when the centre-half just needed to stand his ground – the rasping finish beyond the Argentine’s ex-team-mate Costel Pantilimon couldn’t have been more emphatic.
Equally, the wonderful flick from Yaya Toure’s fizzed pass for City’s second instantly propelled John O’Shea and Santiago Vergini into no man’s land before Stevan Jovetic finished it off.
But it was that too easy quick-fire equaliser which proved fatal to Sunderland’s hopes of recording a fifth consecutive Stadium of Light victory over City.
The momentum and confidence gleaned from Saturday’s stalemate against Chelsea had been all-too evident in the opening 20 minutes.
Jack Rodwell should have broken the deadlock early-doors against his former club when Seb Larsson sent Will Buckley in behind the City defence down the right-hand side of the area.
Buckley pulled the ball back invitingly for Rodwell, in space 15 yards out, but he could only send a weak shot against the legs of Pablo Zabaleta, who had raced back into the goalmouth.
When Sunderland did get their noses in front though, it wasn’t against the run of play, albeit Poyet’s men benefited from a splash of fortune.
Larsson sent a wonderful return pass in behind the City defence for Wickham to chase onto and Zabaleta was forced to produce a last-gasp challenge which richocheted off the striker and beyond Joe Hart.
Had Sunderland had chance to draw breath, establish base camp and defend that lead, then adrenaline may well have seen them produce another stoic rearguard action akin to the one from Saturday.
But the quick-fire nature of Aguero’s equaliser – and the preventable manner of it – knocked all the stuffing out of Sunderland.
Suddenly, they looked like a team who had run, and run, and run, and run, and run against Chelsea.
The accuracy in Sunderland’s passing ebbed away swiftly. Possession began to be squandered far too easily and it looked to be a matter of time before City got their noses in front.
So it proved. Jovetic confirmed the inevitable before the second half became a stroll for the visitors.
The third was again preventable, albeit it was a wonderful finish from Zabaleta, who was doubtless keen to make amends.
Coates didn’t read Samir Nasri’s dinked through-ball for Zabaleta, who elegantly lifted it over Pantilimon.
The fourth simply rubber-stamped City’s superiority – Santiago Vergini going with Aguero’s run, rather than playing the offside trap, and allowing the Premier League’s top scorer to elegantly guide James Milner’s cross beyond Pantilimon.
Thankfully, City turned off the after-burners at that point and strolled through to the conclusion.
Jozy Altidore – on for Steven Fletcher, who went off with a back injury after a rugged challenge from Dedryck Boyata – tried to create something out of nothing, but with Sunderland collectively shattered, the American was ploughing a lone furrow.
With City – and particularly Aguero – in that sort of mood, Sunderland cannot beat themselves up at their wonderful Stadium of Light run against the blue half of Manchester coming to an end.
But the bigger concern is that Sunderland are not going to be a lot fresher when they head to Anfield on Saturday.
Facing a Liverpool side – who were still vulnerable despite victory at 10-man Leicester on Tuesday – was always the most attractive of these three quick-fire games against the Premier League’s big-hitters.
Yet to record a first victory at Anfield in 31 years, Sunderland are still going to need to be somewhere near their maximum.
Physically that will be tough for Poyet’s men.
They must somehow rediscover some energy in the legs and go again.
With only two or three in reserve really able to boast a healthy level of match-fitness though, Sunderland are going to have to dig deep to begin another unbeaten run.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, O’Shea, Coates, Reveillere, Cattermole, Rodwell, Larsson, Buckley, Wickham (Alvarez 66), Fletcher (Altidore 55). Subs not used: Bridcutt, Brown, Cabral, Gomez, Mannone. Booked: Cattermole (71)
MANCHESTER CITY: Hart, Zabaleta, Boyata, Demichelis, Clichy, Fernandinho, Toure, Nasri, Navas (Pozo 83), Jovetic (Milner 56), Aguero (Lampard 74). Subs not used: Caballero, Sagna, Angel Tasende, Fernando. Booked: Boyata (65)