IT took Sunderland half-an-hour to get to grips with their Peace Cup challenge yesterday and by then, it was too late – the pot of gold which goes with this tournament had disappeared over the horizon.
Martin O’Neill put out the strongest side he could, but his players failed to start well and failed to learn the dangers of easily-conceded possession until after they had slipped behind.
And although they improved and enjoyed a second-half purple patch, they will now contest the battle for third place on Sunday, though that game does at least offer some consolation prize money to the winner.
South Koreans Seongnam had a sound game plan, using their knowledge of venue and conditions, plus their superior fitness, to pressurise Sunderland from the start.
But it was a boy from Brazil who did the damage – Seongnam’s attacking midfielder Everton Santos exchanging a one-two in the Black Cats’ penalty area before whipping a low shot around Simon Mignolet from six yards out in the 29th minute.
Sunderland could not complain about the goal, conceded carelessly from a throw-in, which was entirely with the run of play.
Michael Turner, with a last-ditch block, and Simon Mignolet ,with a brave dive at the feet of Santos, denied Seongnam immediately before and after the goal after an opening spell dominated by the Koreans.
So it was hardly as if the Wearsiders were hard done by, even if they did go on to improve impressively, albeit briefly, in the second half.
Sunderland’s only three chances of the first 45 minutes fell to the same man – Kieran Richardson, playing in an advanced role – but he added fuel to claims he is not a natural finisher when he volleyed one over the bar from six yards and nodded a much better chance wide from the same distance.
Seongnam’s two best players were South Americans – Santos in the first-half, Javier Reina in the second – and the Colombian stretched Mignolet several times before substitute striker Jeon Hyuncheol became the dangerman in the last half-hour.
Sunderland had deployed a 4-5-1 formation – with Connor Wickham the lone striker – which became a 4-3-3 when pushing on, Richardson and Fraizer Campbell providing support from the flanks.
But they struggled to get forward in the first hour and too often in the game the willing Wickham was an isolated figure, chasing lost causes and without the experience to bring his team-mates into the game.
He was desperately unlucky with a shot just after the hour when Craig Gardner rolled a ball into his feet and the striker’s goal-bound effort was parried onto his right-hand post by keeper Jeong San.
Then Turner had a good chance when he headed a right-wing corner wide from directly in front of goal just six yards out, before Gardner struck the crossbar from a long-range free-kick, with the keeper beaten, in the 70th minute.
Wickham also turned provider during that spell, rolling a ball to the feet of Campbell from the right wing, but the England cap steered wide under pressure at the near post.
High temperatures and humid conditions began to take their toll on the Premier League men during the closing stages and Sunderland brought on a succession of youthful substitutes to counter the problem.
But they were unable to raise their game enough at the death to threaten an equaliser and it needed Mignolet to make a fine save from Hyuncheol’s full-blooded volley from 12 yards to keep the scoreline close.
Fans should not read too much into this loss – Seongnam are midway through their K League campaign, Sunderland are a week into pre-season and, on top of that, are without more than half-a-dozen of their first-team squad.
But there’s no doubt this result is a disappointment and not just on the financial side of things.
The Wearsiders never looked convincing in front of goal – and while much of that is down to their lack of relative fitness – Sunderland will want to sign off from South Korea on Sunday with a goal or two at least and a morale-boosting win.
SEONGNAM: San, Youngsun, Jongeun, JinPo, Woong, Chul, Sungjoon, Santos (sub Hyuncheol 66), Pyungrae, Calvo, Seyoung (sub Bitgaram 59). Subs: Jin, Jaewon, Jaemyung, Jaekwang, Sunghwan, Jae, Woo, Il.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Brown (sub Adams 72), Bramble (sub Cuellar 60), Turner, Richardson (sub Deacon 72), Campbell (sub Noble 80), Cattermole, Meyler, Gardner, Colback, Wickham. Unused subs: Wilson, Pickford, Egan, Laing, Knott, Vaughan, Reed, Lynch.
Sunderland bookings: Bramble 36, Colback 89.
Referee: Abdul Malik (Singapore)