IF Under-23 football is supposed to provide a realistic taste of what to expect in the first team, then last night’s Premier League International Cup final certainly fitted the bill for Sunderland.
Beaten 5-0, outclassed by superior opposition and playing in front of a host of empty seats at the Stadium of Light. This could have been any game played by David Moyes’ senior side this season.
Harsh? Probably. Sunderland’s youngsters deserve considerable credit for making it to the final of one of European club football’s most prestigious competitions, even if they were ultimately brushed aside with almost contemptuous ease by a Porto side who have joined Manchester City and Villarreal on the list of the competition’s winners.
There is no disgrace in losing to one of Europe’s most established developers of young talent, and watching Porto’s slick passing and movement, it was impossible not to ponder wider questions about how English football develops its young players.
Porto’s B side are in eighth position in the Portuguese Second Division; Sunderland’s youngsters played their biggest game of the season when they went to Rochdale in the Checkatrade Trophy.
With that in mind, perhaps it is no wonder they were unable to cope this evening. The key question now is whether any of them are going to be able to take the next step and establish themselves in the Black Cats’ first team.
Relegation can have some devastating consequences, but one of the few potential positives to emerge from Sunderland’s recent demotion is David Moyes’ increased reliance on the club’s younger players.
Jordan Pickford has rapidly evolved into a poster boy for the Academy of Light production line this season, but you have to go back to Jordan Henderson to find the last outfield player to emerge from the academy set-up and make a sustained impact at senior level.
That is a poor return for almost a decade of investment, but there are hopes that two or three of the players involved in Elliott Dickman’s current Under-23 squad could help redress the balance.
Perhaps the brightest prospect was missing last night, with George Honeyman nursing a back injury sustained while training with the senior squad. Honeyman, a 23-year-old midfielder from Prudhoe, made his senior debut under Gus Poyet back in 2015, and his involvement in six senior games this season suggests Moyes is an admirer of his abilities.
In his absence, the spotlight fell on goalkeeper Max Stryjek, who has been attracting strong scouting reports for a couple of years now, midfielder Lynden Gooch, who started the opening four games of the season in the senior side, and striker Joel Asoro, who is a Sweden Under-21 international.
All could find themselves thrust into the spotlight next season, and all provided glimpses of their quality despite Sunderland’s collective failure to match a Porto side who always looked sharper and slicker in possession.
Stryjek’s best moment came on the half-hour mark when he kept out Joris Kayembe’s penalty, which was conceded by a sloppy challenge from Donald Love. The 20-year-old Pole, who has also been capped at Under-21 level, made another couple of useful stops, and could find himself playing a more prominent role next season if both Pickford and Vito Mannone depart.
Gooch was the senior member of last night’s side in terms of experience, and caused sporadic problems down the right-hand side, while Asoro made some bright surges in attack without ever threatening to trouble Raul Gudino in the Porto goal.
They will all learn from the experience, although the gulf in class was sufficient to temper too many grand predictions for those in red-and-white. This might be a youth competition, but at times, Porto’s superiority meant it felt like men-against-boys.
The visitors’ stand-out performer was Brazilian attacking-midfielder Galeno, who scored his side’s opening two goals. The first, which came after just five minutes, saw him cut infield before curling into the far corner, and the second, which came shortly before half-time, saw him sweep home a first-time finish after the ball was cut back from the right.
Only 19, Galeno signed his first permanent contract with Porto on Tuesday after spending the season on loan from Brazilian side Gremio. His new Portuguese employers have already inserted a €40m release clause into his contract, so it is safe to say they expect big things from him in the future.
He might well realise them on this evidence, and the same is true of dazzling right winger Kayembe, who was every bit as impressive. Kayembe, a Belgian 22-year-old, also signed a new deal on Tuesday, and he outfoxed three Sunderland defenders as he squared for Andre Pereira to score the visitors’ third, before scoring himself as he slotted home from close range at the start of the second half.
Porto claimed a fifth goal when defender Chidozie Awaziem looped a header into the far corner, and even the most partisan member of the 18,317-strong crowd would have been forced to acknowledge the visitors’ marked superiority.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Stryjek; J Robson, Love, Beadling, Hume; Gooch (Gamble 76), Embleton, E Robson (Molyneux 46), Greenwood (Nelson 60); Maja, Asoro.
Porto (4-2-3-1): Gudino; Fonseca, Awaziem, Moreira, Santos; Govea, Ramos; Kayembe (Verdasca 75), Varela (Graca 64), Galeno; Pereira (Diaz 68).