TWO GOALS inside two minutes left Sunderland empty handed at bogey ground Goodison Park despite a much-improved display from the Black Cats.
Adam Johnson’s first goal in Sunderland colours set the Wearsiders on course for their first victory at Goodison since 1996 after the £10million winger profited from one of four golden opportunities Martin O’Neill’s men created during an impressive first half display.
Everton had plenty of huff and puff in the second half, yet failed to create anything clear-cut until the 76th minute when Marouane Fellaini drilled home a leveller from just inside the box.
It was the first in a quick-fire double blow for Sunderland, as Fellaini’s flick moments later sent Nikica Jelavic away for a winner that inflicted a fourth defeat in six games for O’Neill’s side.
One other negative for Sunderland was a fifth yellow card of the season for Craig Gardner, which will rule him out of next Sunday’s trip to Fulham.
Sunderland suffered a double injury blow prior to kick-off, with skipper Lee Cattermole and full-back Phil Bardsley both ruled out.
Danny Rose and James McClean returned to the starting line-up – prompting a re-jig by Martin O’Neill.
Jack Colback moved from left-back to central midfield, where he partnered Seb Larsson, while Craig Gardner took Bardsley’s spot at right-back.
Everton were unchanged from the side which drew 2-2 at Fulham seven days earlier.
Sunderland began really positively and had a golden chance to open the deadlock inside the first four minutes.
Steven Fletcher played a well-weighted slide rule pass for Stephane Sessegnon down the left-hand channel and the Benin international bounced off the challenge of Seamus Coleman, leaving him with just Tim Howard to beat.
But Sessegnon’s effort lacked conviction and he shot against the keeper’s legs.
Three minutes later, Sunderland were again desperately close to breaking the deadlock.
Everton lost possession midway inside the Sunderland half and the visitors broke through Sessegnon on halfway, who fed Fletcher the wrong side of Everton’s defence down the left.
Fletcher’s first touch took him wide but with Coleman racing back to close him down, he still managed to get away a low shot across the face which drifted agonisingly beyond the far post.
Everton struggled to find their passing going forward and didn’t produce their first effort on target until the 27th minute – Steven Pienaar unleashing a shot from a tight angle on the right-hand side of the area, which was straight at Simon Mignolet.
Moments later, the Toffees suffered an injury blow with Kevin Mirallas limping off with what looked like a hamstring problem. Steven Naismith replaced the Belgian.
Pienaar found space on the left-hand byline in the 32nd minute, but his pull-back was pushed behind by Mignolet with Fellaini waiting in the middle.
Nikica Jelavic cushioned a shot into the turf and over the top moments later from six yards after Leighton Baines drilled in a low free-kick from the right.
A third clear-cut opportunity for Sunderland arrived in the 36th minute, but again they failed to make the most of it.
Adam Johnson received the ball just outside the D at the culmination of a slick move from Sunderland and the winger played a beautifully weighted first-time pass down the right for the bursting Jack Colback.
Although it was a narrow angle, Colback had just Howard to beat, but was intent on hitting a shot with his left foot and could only manage a tame effort straight into the keeper’s gloves.
Phil Neville was almost an unlikely opening scorer three minutes before the interval when he let fly with a drive from 30 yards that was pushed away low to his left by Mignolet.
But in first half stoppage time Sunderland got the goal they deserved when Johnson grabbed his first for the Black Cats.
Seb Larsson’s corner from the left wasn’t properly cleared by Everton and came out to Gardner on the edge of the area.
Gardner dinked it back into the danger zone and with the Everton defence sleeping, Johnson crept in at the far post to slot confidently beyond Howard.
HALF-TIME Everton 0 Sunderland 1
Everton began the second half strongly and went close in the 50th minute when Baines’ corner from the left was met by John Heitinga, whose header was booted clear off the line by Johnson, albeit it looked to be going wide anyway.
Gardner went into the book for the fifth time this season – earning him a one-match ban – in the 68th minute when the right-back brought down Baines.
But with 14 minutes to go, Everton grabbed an equaliser when Fellaini was given too much space on the edge of the area, brought the ball into the box and let fly with a low drive which nestled in the far corner.
Two minutes later, the Toffees went ahead went Fellaini’s flick on the edge of the area went through John O’Shea’s legs and straight into the path of Jelavic who tucked it over Mignolet into the net.
Sunderland almost mustered an immediate equaliser when Larsson’s free-kick caused havoc in the Everton box, only for Cuellar’s half-volley to be blocked in the goalmouth inadvertently by Gardner.
FULL-TIME Everton 1 Sunderland 2
EVERTON: Howard, Coleman, Heitinga, Jagielka, Baines, Neville, (Vellios 73), Osman, Fellaini, Pienaar, Mirallas (Naismith 30), Jelavic (Hitzlsperger 86). Subs not used: Mucha, Oviedo, Distin, Gueye. Booked: Heitinga (58)
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Gardner, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose, Johnson (Vaughan 84), Larsson, Colback (Wickham 88), McClean, Sessegnon, Fletcher (Saha 69). Subs not used: Westwood, McFadden, Kilgallon, Bramble. Booked: Gardner (68), Vaughan (90), Rose (90)
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire)
* Full report and reaction in the Football Echo - out tomorrow morning.