Paulo Di Canio can still make the right headline at Sunderland
For forty-five minutes it looked like Paulo Di Canio’s beliefs on the field might dominate the headlines after all, rather than his supposed views off it. After a disciplined and punchy display, Sunderland were beating Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge and their new manager was half way to the perfect start to life as a Premier League boss.
The Italian certainly looked the part. The sharp charcoal suit. The blood red tie with porcelain white shirt. The loud, diamond-patterned, tank top. Well, maybe not that.
Di Canio had emerged to a warm welcome from the Sunderland fans, desperate for something to cheer in their wretched season. A smiley hug from Rafa Benitez was followed by a quick cuddle from John Terry, who was among the Chelsea substitutes. Di Canio, with a self-conscious wave towards the travelling fans, had good cause to feel in the mood for an upset.
On his last visit to Stamford Bridge, in September 2002, he scored two goals - his second was one of his most memorable - to help West Ham win 3-2. It was a good season against the Blues for Di Canio. He scored the Hammers’ winner in the return at Upton Park to enable the to complete the double.
And here he was again. Ready to cause more mischief.
The thinking is that Di Canio will adopt the role of a tinkerer rather than a revolutionary when it comes to try to save Sunderland from the drop. The three changes made in his first selection and a maintenance of the 4-4-1-1 system familiar under Martin O’Neill seem to endorse that view. A first Premier League start since January for £8 million misfit Conor Wickham suggests the slates at the Stadium of Light couldn’t be cleaner either.
The players certainly gave Di Canio a response in the first half as their determined defending kept Chelsea at arm’s length and their willingness to break at speed, and with cohesion, always ensured respect. During it all, Di Canio’s arms went this way and that. His face wore a thousand expressions.
A well-drilled corner gave Sunderland the lead as Cesar Azpilicueta volleyed John O’Shea’s flick into his own net rather than over the bar. Sunderland led at the break. Di Canio liked what he saw.
The plan was simple at half time: stick to what we’ve been doing. Maintain the intensity.
Given Sunderland’s eight-game run without a win, that was always going to come under huge pressure, and so it proved. The introduction of Fernando Torres seemed to energise the hosts and it was the much-maligned Spaniard’s run that got Chelsea level as Matt Kilgallon got the final touch to a Juan Mata ricochet off goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Di Canio would still have been happy with a point.
Chelsea were in no mood for such indulgences, however. Sure enough, ten minutes later another inadvertent touch - this time from Branislav Ivanovic - redirected a David Luiz drive past a flat-footed Mignolet. Chelsea led and were in no mood to surrender it.
Di Canio’s animation continued from the sidelines. But there was no second wind. For all his gesticulating, he might have felt it more use directing the traffic back home in Rome, rather than his players. That’s how it must have felt. He even interrupted his performance to tie his shoe laces at one point. He knew the game was gone.
Afterwards, Di Canio expressed frustration at his players lack of stamina saying: “It is not the fittest team in the world but we are going to work and give them more energy in the next few days and weeks.”
While the players are off shuttle-running themselves into the ground, Di Canio can now focus on much more winnable games to come - especially at home. If two and, preferably three, of Everton, Stoke and Southampton can all be beaten, chances are, they’ll survive. They have a significantly better goal difference than Aston Villa, Wigan and Queens Park Rangers which will help.
Di Canio has six games left. He definitely has something to work with. He can still end up writing his own headlines.