The tie this evening at Eppleton Colliery Welfare between Sunderland and Portuguese side Benfica didn't have the same feel that the usual U23s games do. There were some familiar faces in the crowd in the form of Jonathan Woodgate - now a scout at Liverpool - and the Sunderland management team, whilst the Bovril was extra peppery and helped to take the edge off the bitterness in the cold, harsh winter air.
If you've ever been to Eppleton CW before you'll know that it's not the most atmospheric of football grounds, yet to the corner throughout the game there were a gang of five or six Londoners pretending to be proper Portuguese ultras, singing and dancing and carrying on like they were at the Estádio da Luz. Each to their own, I guess.
Benfica looked very well equipped and had some big lads, but ultimately I'm not sure the sub-zero temperatures in Hetton was to their liking - it was around 16 degrees in Lisbon at 7pm this evening and I bet they would have much rather have been playing back at home. Beyond some neat passing out from the back, they generally struggled to break Sunderland down and offered very little in attack.
Sunderland did very well defensively and in putting pressure on the opposition when they didn't have the ball but were largely wasteful going forward, particularly out wide.
Joel Asoro scored a wonderful goal which came as a result of a sublime solo move but beyond that he was fairly poor and wasted the ball almost every time he got it - a right winger he is not.
Rees Greenwood - who operated the left flank - also struggled, though it wasn't through lack of effort. I've watched Rees play a fair bit over the last two years and that's about as average as I've seen him look, but everyone is allowed an off night. In fact, to be fair to Sunderland's attack tonight they were up against a very solid central defensive pairing and did well to even score twice.
Sunderland persevered though and were rewarded with a late winner, and it was probably a fair result on the balance of the game.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with what I saw. David Moyes watching from the stands will have been impressed by Asoro's goal and should have had one eye on Thomas Robson, who is a very capable looking defender that looks ready to be playing above this level.
Max Stryjek - 6
Made a few good stops, did well on corners and looked steady under pressure.
Tom Robson - 8
Looked very assured and comfortable playing at left back this evening. He's a superb tackler - it's his attacking game that perhaps lets him down but of all the Sunderland players on show tonight he was about the best across the whole ninety minutes.
George Brady - 7
Very composed looking defender and hit the bar with a header from the corner. Physically he could probably hold up in proper league games so we should maybe try and get him a loan move in January.
Michael Ledger - 6
Did well generally but made one big mistake in possession which really should have cost Sunderland a goal - the Benfica forward who went through should definitely have scored and it saved his blushes.
Josh Robson - 6
Fairly decent showing, got forward when he could.
Elliot Embleton - 6
Solid enough. Had the task of playing up against an absolute bull in the Benfica central midfield and handled himself well.
Ethan Robson - 7
Stood out I thought. I like Ethan - like George Brady, he'd benefit from a loan move away from the club because he's one of the ones that genuinely could make it here providing he gets the right breaks.
George Honeyman - 7
Very busy as he always is - he's a player I enjoy watching. His shot-cum-cross led to the winner.
Rumours that he might be off to Derby County in the January are unsurprising - unfortunately for him, Lynden Gooch and Duncan Watmore have made their way into the first team squad ahead of him and, at the age of 22, he's wasting his prime development years in reserve-team football.
Rees Greenwood - 5
Worked hard but created very little. Not his greatest showing.
Joel Asoro - 7
I mark him highly because of the goal he scored - it was absolutely tremendous. Asoro has got it, whatever that is. He's capable of moments of brilliance that other lads his age just don't have in them, and the goal he scored tonight was indicative of that.
Other than that, though, he was largely wasteful. He gets the benefit of the doubt though as he's quite patently not a wide player - he's an out-and-out centre forward.
Josh Maja - 5
Very quiet, the Benfica central defender tasked with handling him looked a class above and kept him out of the game.
Luke Molyneux - 7
Was in the right place at the right time and took his goal well, even if the chance was on a plate for him.
Dan Casey - 6
Replaced the injured Brady but didn't have much to do.