Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Strong defences are set to dominate Goodison Park quarter-final

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REST six players for a Tyne-Wear derby and the lynch mob would be circling the streets of Cleadon.

The Merseyside equivalent evidently doesn’t hold the same do-or-die stakes – or maybe it does and David Moyes has marked his 10 year anniversary at Goodison Park by making one of the biggest gambles of his admirable reign?

Certainly, Moyes has brought unnecessary pressure and attention on his team selection by putting all his chips on tomorrow’s quarter-final.

A failure to beat Sunderland will inevitably spark a torrent of bile-fuelled criticism for needlessly halting the momentum and confidence of a nine-game unbeaten run.

But what Moyes’ gamble instantly demonstrated at Anfield on Tuesday night were the priorities of the Glaswegian.

Everton have had their taste of Europe over the last decade, along with the plaudits accompanying a top six finish on a budget.

Silverware has eluded Moyes though and with Stanley Park neighbours Liverpool still basking in the glow of Carling Cup success, he is understandably eager to go one better than 2009’s FA Cup runners-up spot.

Consequently, the big guns who occupied the bench against Liverpool, will all return tomorrow – Phil Neville, John Heitinga, Royston Drenthe, Leon Osman, Nikica Jelavic and Sunderland nemesis Tim Cahill.

The absence of the cup-tied Steven Pienaar will come as a blow, with the on-loan Tottenham man’s return to Goodison coinciding with an upturn in Everton’s fortunes.

But the Toffees still have more than enough in their ranks during their traditional post-Christmas purple patch, to continue their Midas touch against the Black Cats.

Leighton Baines has arguably emerged as the best left-back in the country, while, judging by his finish against Spurs, Jelavic potentially offers the ruthlessness in attack which has so often been the missing piece of the jigsaw under Moyes.

And then to the riches in Everton’s midfield where tomorrow’s encounter will surely be decided.

Can the industrious pair of Jack Colback and Craig Gardner, who did so well to nullify Liverpool’s approach play last weekend, match up to Marouane Fellaini in the physical battle while ensuring Cahill isn’t given licence to make those unguarded forays into the area?

O’Neill may consider deploying David Vaughan alongside the duo in the middle of the park to go like-for-like with Everton’s 4-5-1 system, although the likely boost provided by Nicklas Bendtner shaking off a knee injury will tempt the Sunderland boss to name an unchanged side.

Amid the continued absence of the suspended Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland need every attacking threat they can muster because chances will be at a premium.

Tomorrow’s tussle promises to follow the same pattern as last weekend’s meeting with Merseyside opposition, where the two sides mustered just one genuine opportunity between them.

Everton have only conceded two more than Liverpool and O’Neill will hope his strikers can show the same alertness they displayed when their solitary moment arrived against Kenny Dalglish’s side.

With Sunderland proving equally adept at shutting-out opposition attacks – Wayne Bridge taking his chance as a more than able deputy for Kieran Richardson at left-back – only the most alcohol-fuelled observer will predict a goal-fest.

Like the Liverpool game, this one will be cat-and-mouse, potentially decided by whoever can make the first breakthrough. Sunderland need not be gung-ho. It is up to Everton to break them down, given the Black Cats will not be particularly distraught if the tie ends in stalemate and goes to a Stadium of Light replay.

Considering Sunderland’s curse at Goodison, that scenario will be doubly heartening.

Statistics don’t sway results, but undoubtedly positive and negative memories of grounds or opposition sides holds some resonance in the sub-conscious of players.

O’Neill won’t give the Everton jinx a second thought, yet almost 6,000 fans crammed into the away stand will be wary after not seeing any Goodison success since the Peter Reid era.

It was Reid who paired his two former clubs in the sixth round draw at Wembley, with the obvious incentive for the winners of reaching that hallowed arena.

The prospect of a date at Wembley holds the potential to encapsulate all of O’Neill’s progress in one game – achieving in a little over three months what Steve Bruce never threatened to secure in two-and-a-half years at the helm.

As a challenge, this is as tough as Sunderland could have wished for at this stage of the competition – resilient, supremely drilled opponents, led by one of the Premier League’s most under-valued managers.

But the same could apply to the Black Cats under O’Neill and the Blue Noses will be equally wary of Sunderland, as Wearside is of continued Everton misery.

Verdict: Draw