Sunderland defender Donald Love steps up recovery as young Black Cats draw at Middlesbrough
Sunderland defender Donald Love made his first competitive start since September as the Black Cats' under-23 side drew 0-0 with Middlesbrough Under-23s at the Riverside.
Love, 24, made four appearances for the senior side at the start of the campaign but has seen his season blighted by injuries, following a series of knocks and an ankle operation in December.
His return here should encourage first-team boss Jack Ross though, as should the performances of the club's youngsters.
The young Black Cats went toe to toe with the Teessiders in Premier League 2, Division 2, controlling possession for large spells in the first half while defending admirably late on.
Love was one of three changes made by Sunderland coach Elliott Dickman following the side's defeat at Everton in the Premier League Cup just over a week ago.
Midfielder Jake Hackett and forward Lee Connelly also came in, as Sunderland lined-up in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation from the off.
It meant Connelly, who has often operated as a winger this term, started alongside Benji Kimpioka up top, while Bali Mumba was deployed at the tip of a midfield diamond, with teenager Dan Neil sitting at the base.
It's a system Sunderland haven't deployed too often this season, yet it served them well in the early stages.
The visitors created the first real chance of the afternoon when a probing cross-field pass from Mumba picked out Love on the right. From there, the full-back delivered a first-time cross which was just too close to goalkeeper Brad James with Connelly lurking.
Sunderland kept up the pressure in the early stages as Mumba forced another save from the keeper before Kimpioka flashed an effort wide.
Yet the best chance of the first half arguably fell to Boro, after Mitchell Curry set up Tyrone O'Neill inside the area but the latter's scuffed shot was straight at goalkeeper Stryjek.
Seven minutes before half-time, Curry had a chance of his own but failed to hit the target from inside the penalty area.
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Sunderland threatened again before the break, when an excellent forward pass from Brandon Taylor was knocked into the path of Mumba by Jack Bainbridge, yet the midfielder's shot was saved.
Both sides had passed the ball well through midfield in the opening 45 minutes, yet attacks quickly broke down in the final third.
Sunderland took a more direct approach in the second half though, as Jack Connolly and Connelly both tried their luck from distance, drawing a couple of fine saves from James.
Boro responded by bringing on Cain Sykes and Joe Gibson with 20 minutes to go, and the latter's cross almost resulted in a goal before Love cleared to safety.
And it was the hosts who finished the stronger, with Taylor denying Curry with a late block inside the area.
His strike partner O'Neill then thought he'd won it in the closing stages but his goal was chalked off for offside.
Sunderland XI: Stryjek, Love, Taylor, Bainbridge (C), Hunter, Neil, Mumba, Connolly (Kokolo, 56), Hackett (Gamble 72), Connelly, Kimpioka.
Subs not used: Johnstone, Young, Evans
Middlesbrough XI: James, Spence, Wood, Mahmutovic, Reading (C), Malley, Dale (Gibson, 70), Brahimi, Sylla (Sykes, 70), Curry, O'Neill.
Subs not used: Hackney, Hood, Bryan.
Referee: Mr Martin Woods.