HOW would Sunderland fare without Lee Cattermole operating as the heartbeat of the side?
That was the big question mark lingering through Gus Poyet’s brain after seeing Cattermole collect his fifth yellow card of the season at Crystal Palace.
Cattermole has been an integral figure for Sunderland since March. Since being crafted into a far more controlled holding midfielder by Poyet, he has emerged as the pivotal piece in the Uruguayan’s jigsaw.
Without Cattermole’s intensity, grit and ability to direct traffic, Sunderland have looked a little lost.
It stood out a mile in both cup games earlier in the campaign.
At the same time as Cattermole’s stock has risen, Liam Bridcutt’s has slowly ebbed away.
Since his promising debut in the Tyne-Wear derby back on February 1, Bridcutt has been little more than alright, either from the bench or in his sporadic outings in the starting XI.
There has certainly not been sufficient to justify Poyet’s huge efforts to sign the 25-year-old last January.
Poyet threw the former Brighton man to the wolves by introducing him from the bench into an unfamiliar right-back role in the mauling at Southampton, yet he was still torn to pieces.
Pairing Bridcutt and Cattermole together as a protective barrier in front of the back four has crossed Poyet’s mind, but, realistically, that was never going to be a long-term solution, given the minimal attacking threat which would result.
If Bridcutt was going to silence the doubters and prove that he can make the grade in the Premier League, this was the game where he needed to grasp the mettle.
It was sink or swim.
Now, Cattermole may well come straight back into the starting XI at Leicester in 12 days time when Sunderland return to action after the international break, but Bridcutt emphatically proved in a pulsating, entertaining encounter that he is a viable alternative.
He had one nerve-jangling moment when his wayward back pass sent Romelu Lukaku through on goal, only for goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon to come to the rescue when he superbly plucked the ball away from the Everton striker.
But other than that, Bridcutt was excellent.
His passing was crisp, his tackling accompanied by a touch of bite and he was invariably in the right place at the right time to thwart Everton’s attacking advances – producing one superb block to deny Ross Barkley during the first half.
The former Chelsea trainee’s confidence grew as a result and he looked as much at home in the Premier League as he has during his Sunderland career.
Having Seb Larsson alongside him helped as well, and not just for the Swede’s opening goal – staggeringly the first time he has found the net from a free-kick in the Premier League in almost three years.
Larsson is invariably the Duracell Bunny in the middle of the park for Sunderland.
But the Swedish international seemed to have digested a couple of extra Weetabix in his non-stop pressing of Everton’s dangermen.
The crowd recognised it too; his name toasted at one point in the first half as he sprinted between the respective members of the Everton back four.
Larsson’s end product and attacking contribution are frequently questioned, but the problems in replacing his graft in midfield is why he has been an ever-present in the Premier League this season.
Inevitably, there was a splash of disappointment in the Sunderland camp that Larsson’s free-kick didn’t prove to be the winner after breaking the deadlock midway through the second half.
But there was also a realisation that a draw was just about the right outcome for two sides who both showed plenty of attacking ambition and each had opportunities.
Defensively, Sunderland maintained their shape excellently and, other than a 10-minute spell in the first half, kept the Lukaku and Samuel Eto’o double-act largely under wraps.
John O’Shea stuck tight to Lukaku, Wes Brown was back to his composed best and while Santiago Vergini and Anthony Reveillere have been somewhat shoehorned into the full-back roles, they prevented Everton’s dangermen out wide running riot.
But, despite their lengthy complaints at the time, there could be little disgruntlement in hindsight at the penalty which brought Everton level.
The only legitimate moan could have emerged from the Everton camp, at referee Lee Mason’s failure to subsequently send-off Connor Wickham, who only made contact with the ball after going through Seamus Coleman in conceding the spot-kick.
It typified a befuddled performance from Mason, who didn’t seem convinced himself of his correct decision to award a spot-kick and after the vehement protests from the Sunderland players, opted not to issue any card to Wickham.
Jordi Gomez could – and probably should – have been given two yellows, and the same applied to James McCarthy.
Mason missed both, as he did the obstruction from Tim Howard after the Everton keeper kept the ball grounded with his chest, although subsequent replays showed the American just managed to avoid handling it.
Crucially though, the penalty didn’t see Sunderland lose their composure.
That was evidence of how therapeutic the victory at Crystal Palace has proved to be.
Self-belief has clearly been restored to Poyet’s players.
After the dispiriting sights of back-to-back defeat against Southampton and Arsenal, it looks as if Sunderland’s players have genuinely drawn a line under those results.
Sunderland could even have won it – Buckley’s burst down the left-hand side of the area just evading Steven Fletcher and then Brown seeing his header cleared off the line by McCarthy in stoppage time.
But a draw was no disaster for Sunderland, particularly given the quantity and quality of players on the sidelines.
The sight of 19-year-old Tom Robson, a rookie albeit promising left-back, on the bench showed how thin Poyet’s options were.
Sunderland made light of those absentees though and maintained the momentum from Palace by adding both another point to the tally, plus an extra boost to restoring their confidence.
By the time Sunderland return to action after the international break at Leicester, they should have two or three extra bodies back in the fold.
Seeing the likes of Bridcutt, Reveillere and Gomez make positive contributions yesterday will have encouraged Poyet though.
Sunderland’s rise from the abyss may not have been as spectacular as their neighbours, but they do look to be back on track to avoid an entire campaign in the thick of the relegation doldrums.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, Reveillere, Bridcutt, Larsson, Gomez (Rodwell 81), Johnson (Buckley 64), Wickham, Fletcher. Subs not used: Mannone, Altidore, Mavrias, Graham, Robson. Booked: Gomez (9)
EVERTON: Howard, Coleman, Distin, Jagielka, Baines, Barry (Gibson 13), McCarthy, Barkley (Osman 86), McGeady (Naismith 70), Lukaku, Eto’o. Subs not used: Robles, Hibbert, Besic, Atsu. Booked: McCarthy (30), McGeady (57)
Referee: Lee Mason
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