Chris Young’s Football Echo Verdict: Everton 2 Sunderland 1

Craig Gardner despairs as Nikica Jelavic celebrates scoring Everton's winner yesterday
Craig Gardner despairs as Nikica Jelavic celebrates scoring Everton's winner yesterday
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AND SO the curse continues.

The 16 years-and-counting wait for a Premier League victory at Goodison Park will persist for yet another season after missing the opportunity for what could have been a campaign-defining three points.

But while the outcome of yesterday’s clash with the Champions League-chasing Toffees was entirely predictable, the performance was not, as Sunderland produced by far their most heartening display of the season so far.

Perhaps it was the rock bottom expectations in the run-up to the game or perhaps it was the words which Martin O’Neill had for his squad when they gathered at the Academy of Light following back-to-back home defeats, but there was a hunger and vitality surrounding Sunderland which has been all too rare this season.

Regardless of Everton’s record against Sunderland, the outcome shouldn’t necessarily have been a surprise, with the Toffees falling behind in each of their previous five games and still managing to avoid defeat.

But after a week in which there have been all too few positives surrounding the Black Cats, at last there were signs of life from Sunderland’s creative players.

Chief among those was Adam Johnson, whose first goal in red and white was just reward for a first half that was by far his best individual display since his debut against Morecambe.

Johnson kept hold of the ball, passed it intelligently on the counter-attack and showed the composure which had eluded three of his team-mates earlier in that opening 45 minutes.

It was a similar story for Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean.

With Everton almost playing a gung-ho defensive line, Sessegnon was granted the room to work his magic and he took advantage with those eye-catching twists and turns which have been missing this season, albeit the Benin international fluffed a couple of promising breaks in the second half.

Likewise, McClean was able to profit down the left as Seamus Coleman failed to get tight enough to the Republic of Ireland winger.

The problem for Sunderland was that they struggled to offer an attacking threat after the break, yet such was their defensive resilience, they looked confident seeing out proceedings.

The blow of losing both Phil Bardsley and Lee Cattermole to injury was a significant one, particularly the latter after showing in Sunderland’s previous two Premier League outings against Stoke and Aston Villa how pivotal he is to this side.

Without Cattermole, Sunderland have not convinced in central midfield this season, but Jack Colback and Seb Larsson were a tireless double-act in ensuring Marouane Fellaini wasn’t able to find space when dropping deep.

When Fellaini pushed further forward alongside Nikica Jelavic, he found an unmoveable central defensive double-act with the magnificent John O’Shea and the equally impressive Carlos Cuellar.

But the introduction of Apostolos Vellios left Sunderland’s centre-halves with two strikers to mark and when Fellaini found space for the first time, he punished the Wearsiders ruthlessly.

From that point, Sunderland were always facing a long final 15 minutes, yet to concede within two minutes of Fellaini’s striker was heartbreaking and perhaps a sign of the frailties that accompany a side at the wrong end of the table.

It will be a tough ask for O’Neill to pick his players up off the floor, yet both they – and supporters – must focus on the encouraging signs.

Yes, Sunderland should have had far more than a single goal advantage at half-time and yes they couldn’t stem the tide after Everton’s equaliser.

But for the first time this season, Sunderland’s attack clicked into gear and that bodes far better than not even mustering a clear-cut chance.

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