When considering the playing conditions of pre-season friendlies, it is reasonable to assume that the matches are generally held in sun-soaked regions with dry, warm weather, which helps improve the players’ fitness levels ahead of the new season.
Most teams choose to travel to the Algarve or the US, where managers put their players through rigorous training in a hotter climate than what is typically experienced in England. However, in 2013, Sunderland took it one step further by heading to Hong Kong to participate in the Premier League Asia Trophy, under the leadership of Paolo Di Canio.
The tournament featured four teams: Manchester City, Tottenham, Sunderland, and South China. The teams played in a semi-final and a final, or a third-place playoff if they lost in the semi-final.
Unfortunately, the weather conditions during the three-day event were absolutely horrendous. The Hong Kong stadium experienced an incalculable amount of rainfall, and injuries to players became a growing concern.
During the semi-final match between Spurs and Sunderland, Jan Vertonghen from Spurs suffered a sprained ankle in the sodden conditions. The situation was so dire that the match had to be shortened to 40 minutes per half, and the Premier League had to send their own groundsmen to manage a pitch that was clearly unplayable.
After the semi-finals, questions arose regarding whether the finals would take place at all. However, due to it being the Premier League’s flagship trophy competition, it was highly unlikely that the finals would be postponed, despite manager Paolo Di Canio’s description of it as a “killer pitch.”
You can’t believe this kind of weather. We have to handle the situation. For example, we changed our [training] schedule a bit and they ran without the ball. We couldn’t play on the field. I hope that we can do something and play the games.
Of course I’m worried about the safety of my players. It’s a killer pitch in this weather. It is dangerous.
Finally, the game was played despite much comment and dismay from both parties. Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini also expressed his disapproval of the game proceeding, and his concerns proved valid when his defender Matija Nastasic had to be taken off on a stretcher during the second half.
The central defender seemed to fall awkwardly, raising questions once again about the wisdom of playing on the boggy Hong Kong Stadium pitch.
As for the match itself, Manchester City dominated from the start to finish, with Edin Dzeko scoring within the first ten minutes. The forward struck the ball cleanly from outside the area, leaving Sunderland’s goalkeeper, Vito Mannone, with no chance.
City’s new signing, Alvaro Negredo, making his first start since his £20.6m move, demonstrated the team’s dominance in the opening period. He easily created space in the area, although he failed to shoot on one occasion. In another chance, the Spaniard ran clear but his left-footed effort went high and wide.
The entire game was essentially one-way traffic, and Paolo Di Canio must have been frustrated with his team’s lack of attacking prowess. The Italian could be forgiven for the disjointed nature of the performance, considering the significant overhaul in the club’s playing staff.
They started the second half as if Di Canio had given them a sharp reminder during the break of his expectations, pushing forward and posing questions to City’s defence. However, their inability to maintain possession was their downfall, and City continued to create numerous opportunities in the second half.
In the 68th minute, Dzeko had a chance to score his second goal from the penalty spot. Unfortunately, the Bosnian sent a terrible shot over the bar, and he looked at the surface in frustration, as he had slipped during the shot. Later on, Seb Larsson had our best opportunity to score, but it was saved by future Sunderland player Costel Pantilimon.
Undoubtedly, both teams were relieved that the whole ordeal was over - especially Di Canio, who thankfully got his team through the trip with minimal injuries. As for City, Pellegrini was likely to lament the loss of a defender in a meaningless competition.
Sunderland continued to invest in relatively unknown players, with many new faces joining the club. The summer of change at the club was bold, but unfortunately, things quickly turned sour.