Things could not have been tighter coming into this intriguing FA Cup Quarter Final, with Sunderland and Everton deadlocked in pretty much every conceivable Premier League statistic. Both had the same number of points, wins, draws, losses, goals conceded, even the league fixture at the Stadium of Light ended as a 1-1 stalemate.
Both clubs knew that a memorable season hinged almost entirely on progress in this competition, with European qualification via the league slipping away.
Both teams had played Liverpool in their last encounters. The visitors named an unchanged side from that which put the Reds to the sword, as Nicklas Bendtner continued his partnership with England international Fraizer Campbell. Everton made no less than six changes on the back of their drubbing against their Merseyside rivals. Most notably Sunderland’s nemesis Tim Cahill was restored to the starting eleven, despite enduring a tough season in front of goal having netted just once.
It was widely anticipated that on their home turf, Everton would begin bossing the opening exchanges as they usually do. But it was Sunderland who bolted out of the box first. The focus of the Wearsiders’ attacks was primarily through James McClean on the left, who regularly got the better of Phil Neville, with the full-back picking up a yellow card for his troubles.
It was McClean who nodded the first sight of goal over the bar, and Leon Osman replied in kind at the other end. Royston Drenthe might, and probably should, have had a penalty, but referee Andre Marriner waved away the protests.
Sunderland’s start brought the goal it deserved in the 12th minute. Jack Colback rolled the ball to Phil Bardsley who rifled home from thirty yards in some style. It was a deserved lead which further ignited the already rowdy away support, which had so far eclipsed that of the home side.
There seemed no evidence that the Black Cats would rest on their laurels as they went close again through McClean, who again headed disappointingly over before Everton grabbed an equaliser in fortuitous circumstances.
Campbell was blatantly fouled in the build-up, as the old combination of a Leighton Baines cross followed by a Cahill header proved Sunderland’s undoing for the umpteenth time. Although it wasn’t quite that direct as Nikica Jelavic got on the end of Baines’ cross only to connect with a poor header which fell nicely onto Cahill’s head and he made no mistake in directing it goalwards.
Cahill came close to doubling his tally but Simon Mignolet punched clear, and Sylvain Distin fired the rebound well wide with a typical centre-back’s shot. The rest of the first half was more of a tussle after a pulsating opening 25 minutes, with little being created as these two were again unable to be separated.
Cahill started the second half as he ended the first, this time with two long range efforts that failed to truly trouble Mignolet. Bendtner did have the ball in the net, though he was a yard or two offside as McClean dwelled too long on the pass. But that was about it as far as Sunderland’s second half opportunities were concerned as Everton began turning the screw in search of the goal that would send them to Wembley.
The home side huffed and puffed, controlling the midfield and hemming Sunderland in their own half for much of the remaining 20 minutes, without creating anything other than half chances. But there was one potentially pivotal moment to follow. Osman dinked the ball into the area for John Heitinga who forced a full stretch save from Mignolet. He could only parry the ball out to Jelavic, who for a split second had the goal at his mercy before the Belgian stopper gobbled it up and blocked the rebound to complete a spectacular double save – keeping Sunderland in the tie.
A replay it is and, to be honest, all Sunderland fans would have taken that prior to kick-off. Not least for the home advantage, but maybe more so the return from suspension of two of our key players Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon. Everton perhaps deserved to knick it, despite the foul in the build up to their goal, and probably could have had a penalty or two.
Unfortunately I can’t give it to the Sunderland support, who were defeaning throughout, so man of the match for me was Colback. He and Craig Gardner had a tall order against Everton’s three man midfield, but Colback rose to the challenge. Marouane Fellaini spent most of the game trying to shrug off the local Sunderland boy but to little avail. He got himself a cheeky assist too, not that it was a particularly inventive one.
The dream lives on, for another week at least, as Sunderland seek to snatch a spot at Wembley with the media drooling over a potential Merseyside derby instead.