IT MIGHT be a long haul for Vito Mannone to regularly return to the Sunderland starting XI, barring any long-term injury for Costel Pantilimon.
Summer signing Pantilimon hasn’t yet produced the array of spectacular saves which became a routine of Mannone’s last season, but the giant Romanian has injected some steel and composure into the Sunderland penalty area.
He is a goalkeeper who genuinely dominates his box, albeit he should do at 6ft 8in.
But with Mannone facing a prolonged period of patience on the Sunderland bench, he needs to maintain his match sharpness. An outing for the Under-21s tonight won’t have done him any harm.
Mannone made several smart saves - mostly from long-range - against a Villarreal outfit who were predictably slick with their ball retention, but lacked the killer punch.
But this was not a great advert for the inaugural Premier League Under-21 International Cup, in Sunderland’s first game in the competition.
The experience of playing against technically excellent counterparts from the Continent will have done Sunderland good, but the stalemate was a poor spectacle and it came at a cost for the Black Cats too - Duncan Watmore limping off midway through the first half.
It wasn’t until the latter stages of the opening 45 minutes that the game came to life; Villarreal almost going ahead when Sunderland failed to clear a corner and Rodrigo Hernandez nodded it back towards the six-yard box.
The ball landed kindly to striker Jorge Mendez, but his shot was blocked by Mannone.
Moments later, Mikael Mandron should have done better after going clean through to the right of goal.
But Mandron’s shot was tame and allowed Villarreal stopper Miguel Banuz to gather low to his right.
Nahuel Leiva then his luck from the edge of the area at the other end, but his well-struck shot was tipped around the post by Mannone.
Mandron went close again early in the second half when he met Tommy Robson’s left wing cross first time, but it was tipped away by Banuz.
Villarreal spurned another good opportunity in the 54th minute when Leiva played in Manuel Viana down the right-hand side of the box, but he blazed his attempted chip over the bar.
The Spanish side continued to work the goalkeeper more; half-time substitute Alfonso Padraza drawing a full-length save out of Mannone with a curling effort from 25 yards out.
Mendez then produced a horrible miss with 20 minutes to go when he was clean through on goal, but managed to scuff a harmless shot well wide as the back-tracking Sunderland defenders caught him up.
There was late drama in stoppage time when right-back Andrew Cartwright was picked out by Liam Agnew’s excellent ball over the top, but he was clipped on the edge of the Villarreal area by Rodrigo Hernandez.
However, the Spanish defender was only shown a yellow card, before Mandron tamely sent the resulting free-kick straight at the goalkeeper.
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Cartwright, T Robson (Ferguson 86), Oliver, McNamee, Beadling, Watmore (Gooch 26), Agnew, Mandron, Smith (Greenwood 74), Lawson. Subs not used: Sukar, Stryjek, E Robson, Blinco. Booked: McNamee (54)
VILLARREAL: Banuz, Alfonso, F Garcia, Bonin, Ramirez, Hernandez, Viana (J Garcia 61), A Garcia (Palav 73), Mendez, Naranjo (Pedraza 46), Leiva. Subs not used: Glauder, Cebria, Moreno, Juan.
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