The sixth bi-annual Barclays Asia Trophy sees Sunderland debut as their pre-season preparations hit fifth gear after a gruelling time in Italy. Competing alongside Manchester City, Hong Kong’s most successful side South China and former winners Tottenham Hotspur – we can finally get excited about actual football again!
Okay – it just a pre-season tournament. There is nothing prestigious or important about it. Such is the anticipation watching of Paolo Di Canio’s very (very!) new look side however, it is a must see for Sunderland fans. Amazingly, it is expected that there will be more Sunderland fans than Spurs or City fans making the near SIX THOUSAND mile trip. If you are one of those fine people, allow me to tip my virtual hat to thee.
We can expect to see the formation, tactics and even the personnel that will more likely be imposed on the rest of the Premier League. Di Canio has also made very clear the importance of this tournament to Sunderland and how much he wants to win.
“I want to win every game. Even when we have a friendly game I have a winning mentality, even when I play cards with my daughter I want to win every time. I want to upset her because I want to win. My mentality is to win every game.
“There are obvious priorities: the Premier League is more important than friendly games but only if we deliver this mentality can we take every competition seriously. So the Barclays Asia tournament is very important because we are going to face the top sides and it’s the dream of every player – this is the mission: to play every game against a top side. We want to win the tournament and we will do everything we can.”
“My primary objective is to be the team that will fight every single game together, so for this we have to spend as much as we can the time together to bond and to become a very united team. I want to deliver my message in the way we want to play – the tactical strategy – to deliver a clear identity in the way we want to play, and this period can help me a lot because we have the chance to stay all day together."
After sealing the Premier League title in 2012, things have not been so smooth for the blue side of Manchester with a trophy-less 2012-2013 campaign. Manuel Pellegrini has continued the clubs trend, spending big on big names with Álvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic, Fernandinho and Jesús Navas costing just shy of £100 million in total. With such a star-studded side, they rightfully start as favourites but Pellegrini was quick to prioritise pre-season preparations over winning the tournament in their second appearance.
"Always important to win every trophy but I think here in pre-season it is just friendly matches. Our targets are not to make all the things to win the game our targets is to prepare the whole squad for the Premier League. We are not going to change our program to win that trophy. We are going to play all the players in the pre-season match so if in doing that we can win - perfect.”
Fellow Premier League side and former Asia Trophy champions Tottenham Hotspur round of the English participants. They look in for a fairly busy transfer window after already wrapping up £17 million midfielder Paulinho, closing in on Nacer Chadli and more importantly fighting to cling onto Gareth Bale. Spurs won their only appearance in this competition in 2009, beating Hull City 3-0 in the final. Manager Andre Villas-Boas seems buoyant at his team preparation, motivation and condition going into the tournament.
"We face a good level of opposition next in Sunderland, we had a really tough game against them at White Hart Lane at the end of last season. We know it will be difficult because of the conditions in Hong Kong, but it is the same for both teams. Hopefully we will continue to step up and try to get through to the final.
"The players have been excellent in their work [in pre-season]. Now we go up a level in opposition in Hong Kong and that gives them extra motivation. At the moment, I’m extremely happy with how it’s going."
The home side seldom succeed in anyway in the Asia Trophy, having only once reached the final in five attempts through the Thailand national team. South China are far and away Hong Kong’s most successful club with no less than 41 First Division titles including the latest campaign. Their chances of a final appearance do seem slim and are expected to be rolled over by Manchester City, but manager Steven Lo is excited by the spectacle nonetheless.
"It is especially meaningful to South China fans that we can meet our club partner Tottenham Hotspur again in the match here, not to mention the much-expected top Premier League teams Manchester City and Sunderland in Hong Kong."
So what are Sunderland’s chances of glory in the East? Well, during pre-season we are unlikely to see too many sparks fly – but you get the sense we will be better prepared physically than the other sides. Di Canio has had the squad on treadmills in their sleep, and this fitness could well bridge the obvious gap in squad quality.
I dare say I have never looked forward to friendly matches as much as this upcoming tournament, except maybe when Juventus came to town – but this time it’s Sunderland who are exciting me. I find it almost impossible not to think we will win after the summer so far!
Sunderland kick of the Barclays Asia Trophy against Spurs with kick off at 11am (our time) and I’ll stick my neck on the line to and list who I think will start;
Mannone, Gardner, Colback, O’Shea, Roberge, Cabral, Larsson, Giaccherini, Johnson, Sessegnon, Altidore.
How do you think we will fair in Hong Kong? What would your starting eleven be? Drop us a comment below - no registration required!