Sunderland’s first team may be struggling on the field this season, but the club’s Under-21 side are flourishing.
They are top of the Barclays U21 Premier League table and through to the knock-out stages of the Premier League International Cup after the 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.
Andy Welsh’s side won Group D to progress to the quarter-finals with the impressive win at the Stadium of Light.
Despite the absence of Duncan Watmore and the injured duo of Lynden Gooch and captain Liam Agnew; fringe first-team players Patrick van Aanholt and Danny Graham played the full 90 minutes.
We kept an eye on the pair and analysed how they fared against the Spanish Super Cup Champions’ Under-23 side.
Patrick van Aanholt:
The left-back has struggled for form in the first team, and was given the opportunity to rebuild some much needed confidence with the under-21 side.
Attacking wise, the Dutch international made some decent bursts forward in the first half, and tested the palms of Simon with a wicked effort from a free-kick.
He continued the second half in a similar fashion, winning a penalty after drawing a foul from right-back Iruarrizaga, and he even had a goal disallowed for offside in the 85th minute.
But then again his ability going forward has never been an issue.
Defensively, it was a similar story though as he was caught out of position down the left-hand side, time and again and subsequently Bilbao’s first goal resulted from some beautiful link-up play down van Aanholt’s side.
A concern for Sunderland fans was that van Aanholt was made to swap positions with Tommy Robson, midway through the second half as the Dutchman moved to the wing, while Robson moved back to full-back to offer greater protection at the back.
Clearly boss Andy Welsh trusted 20-year-old Robson more defensively than the first-team’s only recognised left back.
Graham’s playing time in the first team has been limited but he turned out a man-of-the-match performance for the second string on Wednesday night.
The former Swansea poacher went missing for the first half hour, but a neat little turn and a through ball down the right hand side seemed to revitalise the forward.
Graham was first to a rebound from a free-kick which he failed to convert but a minute later, he peeled off his man to convert a bullet Martin Smith pass on the volley to give the hosts the lead.
The 30-year-old almost doubled his tally at the end of the first half only to see his low drive well saved by Bilbao stopper, Unai Simon.
Graham proved a threat throughout, and midway through the second-half, unleashed a thunderbolt from 25-yards that was brilliantly turned the round the post from Simon.
The former Middlesbrough trainee looked sharp all night and was first to react to a high ball over the top, late on, bringing it down beautifully before misjudging his chipped effort.
His spell on Wearside may have been a barren one so far, but he showcased his professional attitude as he led the line with authority for the Black Cats’ second string.
On the evidence of this game, Graham proved he still has something to offer Sam Allardyce, both in terms of ability and commitment.