I’m unconvinced that luck evens itself out over a season, but karma turned up at the Stadium of Light, as Everton were as fortunate to get a 0-1 win on Wearside as their opponents had been in securing their 0-1 on Merseyside on Boxing Day. Fourth, with five matches to play and a record Premier League points tally in the bag, is more than any Blue could have hoped for in August, but there’s improvement required if the coveted Champions League spot is to be secured.
Under pressure from a lively, if blunt, Sunderland offence, Tim Howard made some routine saves, but the best of the match came from a retreating John Stones, who sensed the danger, engaged the turbochargers and blocked the hardworking Borini’s shot. Stones caught the eye less frequently than in recent weeks, but his positioning and instinct continue to develop almost minute-by-minute. He’ll have his work cut out against the two Manchester teams, but he’s probably the first choice partner for Sylvain Distin right now and on his way to an England cap in the Autumn.
Seamus Coleman appeared a little cramped for room with Gerard Deulofeu ahead of him, but was defensively sound – which he needs to be, as he gets little help from the Catalan conjurer. Leighton Baines’ curious season saw another curate’s egg of a performance – he is the only player whose form has dipped under Roberto Martinez. Perhaps Everton’s more offensive style means that there are fewer blue shirts behind the ball when the left back makes those familiar charges upfield, but he’s getting caught on the wrong side of his man too frequently these days. He’s also being targeted with high balls that exploit his lack of height. Baines will still go to the World Cup. but he’s a notch or two below his best.
Though Gareth Barry chugs about disrupting play and keeping it simple in possession, the much younger James McCarthy has grown into the senior partner of Everton’s DM duo. Sunderland away is very much a McCarthy match – and he reveled in getting around the pitch to tackle and block, as well as to distribute thoughtfully. Week in, week out, he’s been Everton’s most consistent player this season, looking a steal at £13M – not something many Evertonians said on his signing. Man of the Match.
Ahead of the screen, Leon Osman – none the worse for his bash in the eye last Sunday – buzzed around, but looks half a yard short of pace and a touch lightweight to warrant a regular start in a team with Everton’s aspirations. Given over half an hour to make an impact, Ross Barkley was quiet but disciplined, outshone by the ever more lean, ever more productive Aiden McGeady, who looks a very handy man indeed when briefed to run at tiring defenders.
In another innovative move from the sideline, Roberto Martinez deployed a three man attack, with Steven Naismith just off Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu wide on the right. Big Rom showed his power in what’s becoming trademark runs inside and shots on the half turn, but he was a little flat – though he never stopped working. The Scot had the better chances, showing that he can twist and turn as well as pass and harry, playing a full 90 minutes, linking play in the gaps between the lines.
The mini-Messi infuriated and delighted in equal measure. There are times (in fact, it’s most of the time) that Gerard Deulofeu acts like the kid who is the best footballer in the playground – he seems determined to beat everyone and score himself, eschewing options his teammates’ efforts in supporting his attack have created. And yet, he has the beating of just about every defender in a one-on-one whether over ten, twenty or, crucially, one yard. Not since Anders Limpar on a very good day, have I seen a Everton player create that space that makes the difference so consistently.
And, in keeping with the game- indeed the games vs Sunderland – that bit of luck decided the match, Wes Brown deflecting a cross past a wrong-footed Mannone. But the ball would never have arrived in the six yard box had Deulofeu not found that crucial patch of grass on which to play and had Everton not had men in the box away from home.
In those Manchester matches to come, Martinez will need solid performances from the 14 men we can expect to take the field – but he’ll need the magic that pulls the rabbit from the hat too. The man whose the feet possess the wonder of a wand will be the most likely candidate to break open a tight match – but does Martinez play him from the first minute, the sixty-first or the eighty-first? He hasn’t got many decisions wrong this season, but the manager’s biggest calls are yet to come.