AS far as first impressions go, Kenwyne Jones would have hoped to leave a better one on Steve Bruce as the striker failed to fire against Benfica.
Jones’ status as an automatic choice in the Black Cats side is being challenged by Bruce, despite assurances from the new manager that the Trinidad and Tobago international remains a key player under the new regime.
Having failed to sign Peter Crouch from Portsmouth – a player completely different in physique yet similar in style to Jones – Sunderland are still tracking two new frontline signings
Moroccan international striker Marouane Chamakh and Tottenham Hotspur hitman Darren Bent are both on the manager’s wanted list.
That will bring intense competition for a starting berth in attack and Jones can no longer take anything for granted on Wearside.
Key man he may still be, but he will have to work hard to maintain that status.
Bruce does not want anyone operating in the comfort zone – something Jones has perhaps been guilty of at times – and his pursuit of attacking reinforcements sends a clear message, particularly as Crouch would have been a direct rival. Having missed the start of pre-season with an injury, this was Jones’ first appearance under Bruce and he did not do himself any favours in front of goal.
Much, of course, can be put down to pre-season rustiness, but such profligacy will not be tolerated when the real action gets under way in just three weeks time. He could have given the Black Cats the lead after seven minutes, but a ricochet in the area from a Jordan Henderson cross took him by surprise and he somehow managed to lift the ball over the bar from inside the six-yard box.
Bruce has already talked excitedly about the potential of the young players he inherited at the Stadium of Light.
And the new manager backed his kind words with action last night with Henderson named in the starting line-up and Martyn Waghorn – he replaced Jones with 20 minutes to go – among the substitutes.
Given Roy Keane’s big hopes for this pair, it is unsurprising Bruce, one of his few close friends in football, is keen to have a good look at the teenagers in pre-season. Henderson enjoyed a successful loan spell at Coventry in the Championship and has clearly benefited from regular first-team football. Bruce even had the confidence to use him as a holding midfielder against the Portuguese in a five-man midfield.
That left Jones as the lone striker, an isolated role he is used to playing, but does not necessarily enjoy. Nevertheless, he still managed to find some space against a rusty Benfica defence and missed a wonderful opportunity when, unmarked, he nodded Grant Leadbitter’s inch-perfect cross wide of the post from 10 yards out.
The 24-year-old did rather better moments later, running on to Leadbitter’s lofted pass over the defence, but his snap shot from the edge of the area was tipped round the post by goalkeeper Marcelo Moretto.
At the other end, Márton Fülöp – also playing his first game for Bruce – kept out Javier Saviola with his feet, and then gratefully clutched David Luiz’s glancing header from the resulting corner. Benfica had not looked particularly threatening going forward, but they took the lead just after the half -hour mark when Saviola drew a dangling leg from Anton Ferdinand and predictably tripped over it. Oscar Cardozo did the rest from the penalty spot.
Benfica may have missed out on qualification for the Champions League after finishing third in the Portuguese Championship, but they remain a good European side.
Sunderland had their moments, Nyron Nosworthy forcing a good save from Moretto from a Steed Malbranque corner, but Benfica increased their lead 10 minutes into the second half courtesy of a powerful strike from full-back Max Pereira, which flicked the boot of Danny Collins on its way into the roof of the net.
The Black Cats should have pulled one back almost immediately but Kieran Richardson inexplicably failed to control Malbranque’s cutback after some excellent work down the left from the Frenchman.
Jones also had another opportunity in front of goal, bringing the ball down superbly before a tame left-foot shot – under pressure from Luiz – was saved by Moretto.
By that stage, however, Sunderland’s travelling support were more interested in going through their full repertoire of songs, including a few which took great glee in the problems of local rivals Newcastle.
After all, pre-season is not only about those on the pitch getting themselves into peak condition for the start of the new season. Then again, does anyone leave Amsterdam feeling in peak condition given the temptations on offer in the Dutch capital?
SUNDERLAND: Fülöp, Bardsley (Anderson 72), Ferdinand, Nosworthy, Collins Edwards (Reid 26), Leadbitter, Richardson (Tainio 78), Henderson, Malbranque (Healy 72) , Jones (Waghorn 72). Subs (not used): Carson, Stokes.
BENFICA: Moretto, Schaffer, Luisao (Vitor 70), Garcia (Amorim 46), Cardoza, Ramires, Aimar (Coentrao 70) , Pereira, Di Maria (Martins 70), Luiz, Saviola. Subs not used: Moreira, Santos, Gomes.