SUNDERLAND boss Martin O’Neill admits that, four weeks into the new campaign, the case for arguing that players are still working towards full match fitness is getting harder to make by the day.
He made it nevertheless though, because it is clear that neither of his first-choice strikers is yet fully at the races and new signing Danny Rose’s lack of involvement in Spurs’ pre-season proved telling on Saturday.
“I appreciate that the ‘lack of pre-season’ excuse is wearing pretty thin,” he smiled wanly in the wake of Sunderland’s hard-fought draw with Liverpool.
“We’re so many weeks into the season that even I’d expect to be match-fit by now!
“But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s there and it’s something we are working on.
“Steven Fletcher hasn’t had a pre-season, but he’s much fitter than he was against Swansea a couple of weeks ago and he almost finished the game against Liverpool.
“Stephane Sessegnon? It’s just not happening for him at the moment.
“Some of that can be put down to lack of fitness, some of it is simply not brilliant play.
“You always expect him to hold on to the ball, but he didn’t do that at the start of the game against Liverpool and you can’t put that down to fitness at that stage of the match.
“Then there was Danny Rose, who I think will be a decent player. When he gets his fitness, he will impress.”
Sunderland have other fitness issues, too.
“Carlos Cuellar’s hamstring was tightening and tightening all the way through the first half and the physio thought it was best not to risk him any further,” O’Neill revealed after the defender failed to re-appear for the second half.
The Black Cats’ £10m signing, Adam Johnson, fared worse than the Spaniard – not playing a part in the game at all after losing his fitness battle with a thigh injury.
“Adam was disappointed because he was improving all the time after coming back from England,” said the Sunderland manager.
“But it was too soon for him,
“It was a pity because we could have done with his quality and I thought we missed him – even though that seems like a strange to say with him only being here for two games.”
Such issues make it difficult for the manager to have a firm view on how quickly this Sunderland side will hit its straps.
“There’s a lot of things that are up in the air,” he said
“I don’t know when Adam’s back. I don’t know if we’re good enough to finish top-half.
“At the moment, we have our own set of problems but it is early.
“With the stop-start nature of the season so far, this coming week is actually the first time that we’ll have all the players and the new signings together on the training ground to work with.”