GUS Poyet says he was quietly confident that Santiago Vergini would rise to the challenge of becoming emergency right-back for Sunderland.
But now the Black Cats’ boss faces a dilemma for Sunday’s crunch relegation game against Cardiff City – whether to stick with the versatile Argentinian, who has performed so well in the games against Manchester City and Chelsea, or whether to recall Phil Bardsley who has been clear first-choice this season.
Bardsley is now available after a two-game suspension, imposed after picking up his 10th booking of the season in the narrow defeat to Everton earlier this month, and will be keen to make an immediate return
No one has made more Premier League appearances for Sunderland than Bardsley and the uncompromising right-back’s fighting spirit could be ideal for the relegation six-pointer against the Bluebirds at the Stadium of Light.
But Vergini, signed as a centre-half from Estudiantes in the January transfer window, has looked comfortable in that position in what have been arguably Sunderland’s two finest performances of the season.
Poyet has been delighted by the form of the 25-year-old who has had something of a baptism of fire since arriving on Wearside.
“I knew he could do it,” the Black Cats boss told the Echo. “I knew because I had watched him to do it in Argentina. Although centre-half is his natural position, I have seen him play at right-back two or three times and I knew he could give me a hand if I asked.”
With Bardsley out and Ondrej Celustka and Craig Gardner unavailable through injury and illness, Poyet turned to his fellow South American in what was a gamble that paid off richly.
But he says that had it not worked out, he would have shielded the defender from criticism.
“I’m delighted for Santi,” the Uruguayan said.
“I made a big decision to play him there and I would have taken responsibility if it had not worked out – it would not have been his fault.
“No one should kill the boy if he has agreed to help me out – he has given me a terrific hand by playing in a position which is not his preferred one.
“But he came in and he did well. He was very impressive.
“He’s calm on the ball and I know he might run in an unusual manner and pass the ball in a risky way at times, but he is adapting to this country’s style of football and he is a quality player.”
If Sunderland fans were uncertain when they first saw Vergini down on the team sheet to play right-back at Manchester City, then so it appears were the Argentinian’s own team-mates, who were looking to protect him.
Poyet revealed: “At half-time at Man City, I had to say: ‘Give it to Santi, pass the ball to him, don’t be afraid, he’s not going to lose it and he’ll always try to do something with it’.
“‘Don’t think of him only as a centre-half’.
“‘Now, he’s not going to go one-on-one with the full-back like Ashley Cole would – but give him the ball, help him out, be available, but make sure he sees plenty of the ball if it’s there’.
“They listened and understood and that’s what they did in the second half and he went forward and did well.
“He has had a couple of very good games and I’ve been very impressed. I’m very pleased that he has given us another option.”