I’ve seen too many Boxing Day matches to know that the formbook is no guide to Christmas fixtures (at least the memory, editing out the expected in favour of the unexpected, tells me so) and that’s how things turned out across the country, with the bottom three all winning. Which would amuse me – were it not for dead last Sunderland’s three points at Goodison.
Though this defeat can be dumped in the pile marked “Freak Results” – there’s the Osman error, the 26 attempts on goal vs one penalty and the Howard red card (the ludicrous Denial Of An Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity rule strikes again: what did Howard do if not create an Obvious Goalscoring Opportunity by manufacturing a shot from 12 yards?) – it’s still a crushing disappointment to Evertonians who were beginning To Believe. For the talk in the car en route to Goodison had inevitably strayed into constructing tables predicated on The Blues taking six points from the holiday fixtures, while Liverpool got none – and no amount of shushing stopped it!
Inside Goodison, the mood was already changing before the goal. As befits Everton’s high-flying status, Sunderland had lined up to defend the penalty box, play on the break and maximise dead balls. There were periods when the match looked like attack vs defence: Osman, Mirallas, McCarthy, Pienaar and Barry passing and probing, looking to pierce players happy to pass their opponents from one to another while their opponents passed the ball. While Everton searched for the dagger to stab at the heart of Sunderland, the crowd were suggesting a bludgeon might be more appropriate, some ire being directed towards the point of the Everton attack, a crowded out Romelu Lukaku.
Those wary of The Martinez Project’s patience in possession and its insistence that passing the ball to a man under pressure must be done, soon had a little more ammunition. That powder may be dry, but will come out <del datetime=”2013-12-26T18:31:28+00:00″>if</del> when the bad run arrives. Both culprits were withdrawn, Howard involuntarily, Osman voluntarily, and the game settled back into the same pattern, albeit with Sunderland enjoying a little more possession and indulging a little more ambition.
After half-time, with Ross Barkley’s rapier in place of Kevin Mirallas’ increasingly anomalous battering ram, the same puzzles required solutions and, with defenders tiring, Everton found them. Though few chances were absolutely clear cut and none converted, the crowd were happier, moves breaking down with shots off target or saved by the excellent Mannone, rather than petering out with an interception or a pass misplaced (and it doesn’t take much to misplace a pass when seeking to plot a route through a rock solid defence).
The Goodison faithful recognised the effort of the team with warm applause at the final whistle – supporters rather than fans – but the next two matches, also winnable and against red and white striped teams, will test that patience further if the expected (whoops) six points do not materialise.