They say that being able to grind out a win despite playing badly is the sign of a good team. If they haven't managed to secure the points their performances so far this season have deserved, Everton have at least shown themselves to be a good attacking side and if there is anything to the aforementioned adage, then they proved that too today against Sunderland.
With the Blues on a run of just one defeat in 19 and the Black Cats having won only one of their last 18, their was a uncomfortably complacent air among some Evertonians in the run-up to this one, with many expecting David Moyes's dynamic outfit to mete out the mauling they have on occasion threatened this season.
What unfolded was largely along lines of the "Goodison Park twist on Murphy's Law" referred to in our match preview on Friday: Sunderland scored first through someone other than Steven Fletcher and it was Adam Johnson's first goal for the Wearsiders since his big-money summer move from Manchester City. That kind of thing tends to happen with Everton... but at least Louis Saha didn't score a last-gasp equaliser!
Moyes's men are nothing if not indefatigable this season and they not only recovered from conceding the first goal for the sixth successive game — setting another Premier League record in the process — but they turned the match on its head and broke Sunderland hearts by winning their first game in five to keep hold of fourth place.
As expected, Moyes named an unchanged line-up from that which started at Fulham last weekend but he was forced into an unwanted switch with less than half an hour on the clock when Kevin Mirallas, again the best player in Blue up to that point, pulled up with a tweaked hamstring. The Belgian had been at the heart of almost all of Everton's best moments in the early going and it's fair to say that the home side took a long time to recover from his sudden absence.
Instead it was the visitors who drew first blood, having missed two gilt-edged chances in the first eight minutes to break their scoring drought. Stephane Sessegnon had out-muscled Seámus Coleman to set up a one-on-one situation with Tim Howard but the American saved well to divert the ball over with his legs. Fletcher then flashed a shot inches past the far post after Sessegnon had put him into the clear behind the Everton defence.
Martin O'Neill's struggling side did pick the lock of that home defence in first-half injury time, though, annoyingly assisted by the otherwise excellent Leon Osman. A corner from the Sunderland left was initially cleared but Osman went to sleep completely when the ball was swung back in to the back post and Johnson profited from acres of space to bury it past Howard to make it 1-0.
All-too familiar territory for Everton who had dropped eight points from their last four games thanks to the fact that they had left themselves chasing the game in each having ceded the first goal to the opposition. As usual, they had dominated possession but, unlike at Craven Cottage, they hadn't had much to show for it by the time Sunderland struck.
Indeed, the Blues had looked sloppy and incoherent in the early stages and though they did find their feet as the first 45 minutes progressed, they often lacked penetration, partly due to a below-par display by an out-of-sorts Steven Pienaar and Mirallas' early departure from the fray for the second home game in succession and partly due to the fact that the Black Cats had put up a determined wall on the edge of their box that Everton battled to break through.
While the South African struggled to find the killer pass and fluffed the first chance of the game in the third minute with an awful miskick following a poor defensive header, Mirallas had been lively. He went closest to creating the opening goal with a familiar burst into the box and skip to the byline in the 12th minute but his cut-back couldn't find a Blue shirt. Leighton Baines almost replicated the same move a minute later but he was perhaps guilty of trying to walk the ball through three defenders and the chance evaporated.
Despite not being at their best, the Blues did have other moments in the first half that might have yielded a goal. Carlos Cuellar deflected Nikica Jelavić's shot over the crossbar in the 20th minute before the Croatian guided a Baines free kick narrowly over, Pienaar forced Simon Mignolet into a parrying save with a drilled effort from the angle, and Phil Neville tested the 'keeper from 25 yards with a well-struck shot of his own but the Belgian fisted it to safety as well.
No doubt stung into action by Moyes's half-time team talk, Everton came out from the break with a good deal more purpose, epitomised by Fellaini who seemed to be on a personal mission to rescue the game. But the Blues' early fire faded a little as the half dragged on and after John Heitinga had seen one header cleared off the line by Johnson at the back post and then failed to make proper contact on a similar ball from the left five minutes later, chances became fewer and farther between.
The loss of Mirallas was painfully evident, particularly because his replacement, Steven Naismith, was struggling through another poor personal performance, regularly giving the ball away in the final third. For long periods, it just didn't look like it was going to happen for Everton and the nagging sense of a big opportunity missed began to set in.
It wasn't until the shape of the team changed in the final 20 minutes following Moyes's first substitution that the breakthrough finally came, although it was probably coincidental. The manager withdrew Neville in favour of Apostolos Vellios with 17 minutes to go, pulling Fellaini back into central midfield in the process, but it was the big Belgian who popped up on the 18 yard line to collect Osman's lovely pass and score the equaliser that began the match-winning turnaround. Fellaini collected the ball, took time to pick his spot and rapped a crisp low shot into the corner of Mignolet's net, far enough from this international team mate that he barely attempted a dive to stop it.
Less than three minutes later, Goodison was rocking to a 2-1 scoreline. Osman it was again with a beautifully weighted pass to the edge of the box, one which Fellaini flicked on through John O'Shea's legs with the outside of his boot and Jelavić, who had anticipated the path of the ball as if he has a sixth sense, pounced to side-foot home — one touch, of course — with aplomb.
The sense of relief was palpable but, with last weekend's late lapse fresh in the memory, it was accompanied by a healthy dose of nerves now that the Blues had three points to protect. Indeed, with better luck Sunderland might have leveled matters again almost immediately but when Cuellar found himself eight yards out and the goal yawning, he fired into team mate Craig Gardner and the ball cannoned away to safety from Everton's point of view.
Moyes then threw on Thomas Hitzlsperger for his debut to try and shore up the midfield and the Blues duly did see out the remainder of normal time and five minutes of stoppage time to register what was an important victory. Had that frustrating run of four score draws stretched to five, there would always have been the danger of self-doubt creeping into a side that could easily, under very slightly different circumstances, be right up there with the leaders.
As it is, they've stretched their impressive run of results against Sunderland at Goodison and kept hold of fourth place, albeit on goal difference from a stubborn West Bromwich Albion side that has been grinding out good results while the Blues have been nobbling themselves with annoying draws.
Obviously, any extended injury lay-off for Mirallas would cause a serious headache for Moyes's attacking machine but it's a gap that could be mostly plugged should Pienaar quickly re-find his best form. And while Fellaini remains as potent as he has been this season — today marked his sixth goal of the campaign — and Jelavić as deadly when chances fall his way in front of goal, Everton will always be a threat to win games thanks to their impressive strike rate of almost two goals a game this season.
Hopefully today's triumph will give all the impetus the team needs to take down to Reading next week and earn the kind of win they deserved at Fulham. Remaining tight at the back — still not a given, unfortunately— and lethal up front will give the Blues every chance of another win before back-to-back home games against Norwich and Arsenal at the end of the month.
Unbeaten at home this season, Everton take on Sunderland with an unchanged team that is looking to get back to winning ways after four successive draws. For Sunderland, both Louis Saha and James McFadden are on the bench. Everton kicked off and started with a long ball up to Fellaini who was awarded a free-kick. A nice move down the middle and a lovely touch from Mirallas put Jelavić through but he took too long then fell over, while Sessegnon got in and had a shot on Hibbert that required a really good save for a corner. It was scrappy stuff at times as close attention from Sunderland was making it hard for Everton to settle, with Pienaar off his game.
A dreadful Neville give away ended up with Feltcher in on goal and rolling the ball fractionally wide of Howard's far post. Blues could have been two down already! Everton got a free-kick wide right that Baines swung in and they looked to apply pressure with some simply incredible work from Mirallas to get in behind and make chances. Baines tried to do the same but overplayed it.
More patient build-up play was well constructed at times but came to nothing with desperate blocks to prevent Everton shots from materializing. And over 20 mins before the first Everton shot on goal told its story, Jelavić finally getting off an effort that was deflected over for The Blues first corner that was not really well executed as they really struggled to get through a massed Sunderland defence.
Jagielka picked out Jelavić who tried an audacious flick back to Mirallas that lacked enough power. Pienaar powered in down the right and stung Mignolet's gloves with a lively shot. But a huge blow for Everton when Kevin Mirallas pulled up with a hamstring injury and had to be replaced by Steven Naismith, who was in action early, and a little too aggressively.
Pienaar got in to the byeline but Mignolet batted his cross behind for a corner, then Coleman was sandwiched right on the edge of the Sunderland area, and Baines clipped in a low free-kick to Jelavić running across goal but he met the ball wrong. Everton's passing at crucial moments was letting them down as they tried to go through opposition players, while Sunderland created and squandered another chance.
Fellaini got off a blocked shot that went for a corner but Heitinga was over zealous in causing trouble and the set-piece went begging, Jelavić finally got the bit in his teeth and made three surprising tackles to keep the ball before setting back to Neville who needed little encouragement to shoot from distance, forcing a two-fisted save on the stretch from Mignolet.
The lacklustre Everton performance drew its predictable result just before half-time as Adam Johnson scooped the ball home after escaping his marker, Leon Osman, the Blues giving up the first goal for the sixth game in a row.
Fellaini tried to get the better of his compatriot keeper but had no room to head in Baines's cross. Fellaini then made a long run and won a corner that fell to Heitinga but his shot was wide. From the next corner by Pienaar, Heitinga glanced his header goalwards, but Johnson cleared off the line and Osman fired wide.
Another fantastic Baines delivery but this time Heitinga's header was weak and it bounced harmlessly wide. He later went in the book for a rather poor tackle on Fletcher as the Blues struggled to create any real chances against a very robust defence.
Everton should have had a penalty when Baines was blatantly blocked by Gardner, whop went in the book for his next tackle as Louis Saha replaced Fletcher, Sunderland standing firm against the relatively ineffective probing from an increasingly frustrated Everton side who were running out of ideas.
David Moyes decided it was time for action, sacrificing Neville to make room for Apostollos Vellios, his first appearance of the season, given barely 20 mins too rescue the game. It that Fellaini might be dropping deep but in another patient move, Osman played the ball forward to the big Belgian and a little deft movement saw him fire a low slot very cleanly into the goal well wide of Mignolet. 1 - 1... Game On!.
In the next attack, Fellaini in the same position flicked on an identical ground ball from Osman and Jelavić needed no invitation to pounce and fire in for the second goal in two minutes.
Everton almost contrived to gift Sunderland an equalizer but thankfully Cuearr's shot was blocked by his own man Gardner. The last 10 minutes were much more open. With nervous moments in the Everton defence, Moyes decided to pull Jelavić and give Thomas Hitzlsperger his debut with 5 mins left.
Could Everton now hang on for their first win in five games, after this one had looked so lost for so much of the second half? It was time for the Blues to throw themselves at every ball in the Everton area as Sunderland made the ending as nervy as possible for the Goodison faithful entering 5 mins of added time.
Hitzlsperger looked to strike from distance but drove his shot poorly wide. Hitzlsperger then played in Naismith but the Scot could not dig out his shot. After booking a couple of frustrated Sunderland players, Lee Mason blew his whistle. Everton had finally won again in the Premier League!!! And stay 4th ahead of West Brom on goal difference.
With a little over a quarter of the season gone, we've reached the 10-game marker that David Moyes cited as the earliest he would consider judging the kind of start Everton have made to the 2012-13 season.
After earning an unwanted reputation for getting out of the gates slowly and grinding their way through the first half of campaigns, Moyes's side lie fourth in the Premier League and far from being flattered by that lofty position at this stage of affairs, the Blues are feeling somewhat frustrated that they aren't sitting even higher.
Four consecutive draws in games they did enough to win but were denied either by poor finishing, poor officiating or, in the case of the Merseyside derby, just not making second-half superiority pay off, has left Everton in fourth — but only on goal difference from Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion — and seven points off leaders, Manchester United.
Nevertheless, the Blues have lost just once in 19 League games now stretching back into last season and they've achieved their current berth in the table despite playing six of their 10 games thus far away from home.
Due for another home encounter, Everton entertain Sunderland this weekend, the team they just loved to play last season. They denied the Black Cats victory on Wearside in December last year and then comprehensively out-played them in the FA Cup quarter final replay at the Stadium of Light before effortlessly dispatching them 4-0 at Goodison Park shortly afterwards.
Martin O'Neill's men come to Merseyside this time under a good deal more pressure than last — with just one win in 17 in the League and having scored just six times so far this season (the lowest tally in the top flight), they lie in 16th place. Furthermore, only one Sunderland player has managed to find the net this season and that is new recruit, Steven Fletcher.
Of course, the Goodison twist on Murphy's Law states that another Black Cats player — probably Louis Saha — will find the net in this one and, if recent Everton form is any guide, it'll come early in the game!
Therein lies Moyes's challenge; even though Everton have owned Sunderland in recent years, particularly at home where they've won five straight, conceding early goals has been his team's Achilles heel this season and he must tighten that up this weekend so that the Blues can start to build some momentum through a favourable run in the fixture calendar.
Whether it is John Heitinga and Phil Jagielka again or a restoration of the Sylvain Distin-Jagielka pairing in central defence, Moyes will surely be instructing his men to keep it tight in the early going, particularly given Fletcher's penchant for plundering goals against the run of play.
The onus to tighten things up will also fall on Phil Neville in defensive midfield and Seámus Coleman at right back (Tony Hibbert misses out again through injury). Fulham's goals could be directly attributed to the latter two's lapses in judgement so more focus will be demanded of both going forward.
Up front, the cascade of chances continued at Craven Cottage last weekend, led by the increasingly exciting Kevin Mirallas and the beast that is Marouane Fellaini. With better luck, the latter Belgian could easily have had a hat-trick but that, in combination with less-than-clinical finishing by Steven Naismith and Nikica Jelavić allowed Fulham to steal an undeserved point at the death. Plenty of motivation, then, to get three points on the board this weekend.
Jelavić would be the first to acknowledge that he is going through a noticeable dip in form but while his work-rate and positional play continue at their familiarly high levels, it's only a matter of time before he gets among the goals again. He reveled playing against Sunderland last season and will no doubt see this as a good opportunity to get his personal campaign back on track.
He is likely to be playing just ahead of Fellaini again, with Mirallas on the right, perhaps interchanging again with Steven Pienaar on the right.
Ex-Blue, James McFadden, was hoping to face the Blues on his old stomping ground but a hamstring problem means he will have to watch from the sidelines. Sunderland will have Saha in their ranks, though, with the Frenchman vowing to make a goalscoring return to Goodison Park even though he will likely start on the bench.
In the context of the push for fourth place this season and the way Everton have been playing this season, nothing short of victory will do this Saturday. Some have remarked that someone is going to take a hiding when the Blues' attacking machine really clicks into gear and history under Moyes might suggest that Sunderland could become that hapless victim.
But complacency has been an enemy for Everton before this season so it will behoove them to remain professional and clinical as they search for a first win in five to help keep them on the coat tails of the top three.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2012-13 Reports Index|
|Neville (73' Vellios)|
|Mirallas (30' Naismith)|
|Jelavić (86' Hitzlsperger)|
|Subs not used|
|Colback (88' Wickham)|
|Johnson (84' Vaughan :90+4')|
|Fletcher (69' Saha)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Arsenal||2 - 2||Fulham|
|Aston Villa||2 - 3||Man United|
|Everton||2 - 1||Sunderland|
|Reading||0 - 0||Norwich|
|So'hampton||1 - 1||Swansea|
|Stoke City||1 - 0||QPR|
|Wigan||1 - 2||West Brom|
|Man City||2 - 1||Tottenham|
|Newcastle||0 - 1||West Ham|
|Chelsea||1 - 1||Liverpool|
|5||West Bromwich Albion||20|
|6||West Ham United||18|
|20||Queens Park Rangers||4|