Di Canio's debut
After the furore came the football. Rob Parrish looks at how Paolo Di Canio's bow as Sunderland manager ended in a narrow defeat to Chelsea and what the future holds for the Wearside outfit under the Italian.
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 08/04/13 12:51pm
Amid the heated debate over fascism, political views, interpretations of a raised arm salute and constant regurgitation of a single quote from eight years ago, it became easy to forget that Paolo Di Canio was originally thrust into the headlines because of his abilities as a football manager.
That is not to belittle the many important issues and questions raised in the past weeks over the ideologies of the new Sunderland boss, but the discussion which raged so intently in the wake of the Italian's appointment and is sure to continue into the future will not be furthered here. As Di Canio himself said: "I don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area. We are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club. I want to talk about sport."
After spending most of his first week in charge being grilled and dissected by journalists from both the back and front pages, the overwhelming majority of whom were utterly disinterested in Di Canio's off-field thoughts when he was appointed by Swindon two years ago, the prospect of taking on the reigning European champions on their own turf after inheriting a side in free-fall will have come as a welcome relief.
Di Canio was one of the last to emerge from the Stamford Bridge tunnel, waving to the travelling contingent of Sunderland fans and taking his place in the dug-out. It was one of the very rare times he sat down all day, as he was on his feet quickly to exchange an embrace and a few words with Chelsea favourite John Terry, before further pleasantries with opposite number Rafa Benitez.
Over the ensuing 90 minutes he variously paced his technical area, barked orders and signalled to his players, called individuals over for more in-depth instructions and consulted with his backroom staff over how to deal with the fluctuating fortunes of a contest against one of the Premier League's heavyweights. Essentially, everything you would expect from a top-flight manager, although body-language experts and fashionistas will surely have more to say on some of his gesticulations and wearing a checked jumper under a suit jacket.
Signs of hope
Sunderland may have left West London with nothing to show for their efforts and now only out of the Premier League relegation zone on goal difference, with the added concern that 18th placed Wigan also have a game in hand, but there were signs of hope, a greater defensive resilience and more attacking threat than in the final unhappy days under Martin O'Neill. The question now is whether there is time for the green shoots of recovery to take hold.
The eye-catching news from Di Canio's first team selection was installing Connor Wickham in the starting XI for just his second Premier League start this season and depositing goalless £5million January signing Danny Graham on the bench, although it was later claimed this was due to a knee problem. Matt Kilgallon came into the centre of defence to replace the injured Titus Bramble and Seb Larsson replaced James McClean in midfield.
The formation adopted by the new Black Cats boss was not dissimilar to the one employed by O'Neill, with Di Canio opting for evolution rather than revolution, but the square-peg-in-round-hole approach sometimes used by his predecessor was ditched. Craig Gardner, often found at full-back under O'Neill, was back in a central midfield role alongside Alfred N'Diaye with Larsson and Adam Johnson providing support from the wings and Stephane Sessegnon buzzing around behind Wickham.
The England Under-21 international has found it tough since making the £8million move to the Stadium of Light from Ipswich under Steve Bruce in June 2011, but he repaid Di Canio's faith with an eager, although at times rusty, display up front. His desire to take on David Luiz forced the corner which led to Sunderland's opener and he would have been perfectly placed for a close-range finish had Sessegnon opted to look up and pass rather than blaze into the side-netting early on.
Defender Kilgallon, making just his sixth Premier League start this season, also performed well despite being the unwitting scorer of Chelsea's equaliser as Simon Mignolet's block from Oscar bounced against his shins to send the ball rolling, almost with embarrassment, into the bottom corner of the net. In partnership with John O'Shea, he ensured Chelsea's much-admired attacking line-up which featured Demba Ba, Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres, who replaced the injured Ba at the interval, were restricted to just three shots on target in the entire 90 minutes.
Arguably the greatest puzzle for Di Canio to solve is what has happened to former Manchester City winger Johnson. The occasional England international was coveted by a number of teams before electing to make the £10million switch to his hometown club in the summer, ostensibly because of the lure of regular first-team action, a luxury he was rarely afforded by Roberto Mancini, and one he is now rather undeserving of.
Johnson looks a player bereft of confidence, form and belief. Aside from the corner which led to Sunderland's goal, his deliveries were poor, he rarely had the confidence to take his man on and regularly slowed down the play to cut back onto his left foot. It was much the same in the recent contests with Fulham, Norwich and Manchester United. Perhaps a spell on the sidelines and some of the tough love dished out by Mancini, even at this late stage of the season, could be the cure.
The fitness of the squad he inherited was one issue raised by Di Canio after the Chelsea game, a worrying suggestion given they were up against a side playing their fourth game in nine days and 57th of the season overall. Sunderland, by comparison, have played 37 times: "I'm not going to say they're not fit, but it's not the fittest team in the world," he said. "This team at this moment is not a team that can play Chelsea for 95 minutes."
Di Canio also suggested that the challenges which lay ahead for his players would not be so testing, stating: "We are not going to play against Chelsea every time, they are one of the top four sides. It is obvious that the job has to come from us because maybe we will play against a weaker side than Chelsea."
With the small matter of a Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle United to come at St James' Park on Sunday and games against Everton, Aston Villa, Stoke, Southampton and Tottenham bringing the curtain down on the season, the true measure of Di Canio the football manager will come over the next six fixtures and will be determined by whether he can muster enough points to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.