Graeme Anderson’s match report: Paolo is the cure for Sunderland

Danny Graham celebrates Stephane Sessegnon's goal.
Danny Graham celebrates Stephane Sessegnon's goal.
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KILL or cure.

Kill.

Or cure.

That was the magnitude of the decision faced by Sunderland owner Ellis Short when he jettisoned the previously safe hands of Martin O’Neill in favour of madly-driven, managerial maverick Paolo Di Canio at the end of last month.

It was a stark choice, a bold choice, but one which the owner felt was no choice at all, having become convinced that an honourable man was powerless to prevent a slump which would surely have seen Sunderland playing Championship football next season.

It has been a roller-coaster three weeks since O’Neill was fired by a phone call from halfway across the world – three weeks tempestuous and tremendous in equal measure – and Short would have known at the start of it that he was going out on a limb.

He was making a critical footballing decision entirely of his own making without the support of football men like Niall Quinn.

But as he looked down from high in the West Stand on Saturday, after watching Everton vanquished and Di Canio venerated, he would have known that he had quite possibly just made the best decision in his five years at the club.

Short has watched, with a mixture of alarm and anger, the performances of Sunderland this season, particularly after spending £10million in the January transfer window only to see displays worsen rather than improve.

The final straw for him was the ineffectiveness of New Year arrivals Danny Graham, Alfred N’Diaye and Kader Mangane.

But against Everton, N’Diaye produced his best performance in a Sunderland shirt, an eye-catchingly athletic display in midfield, while Graham ran himself into the ground for the cause and Mangane – unused by O’Neill – was involved in his second game in a row.

These though were only facets of a victory made more memorable not just because it was against a side still chasing Champions League qualification, but because it was against the bogey club that had not lost to Sunderland in 19 previous encounters.

The bigger picture was that this was a victory for the virtues of, at times, breathtakingly hard work, discipline and focus.

Sunderland had gone into the game boosted by the slaying of another bogey team, Newcastle United, the week before, thanks in no small part to those exact same qualities.

But the Black Cats were forced into one change from that side, with Phil Bardsley succumbing to injury.

And it was a brave move to give left-footed midfielder Jack Colback that role, rather than rejigging the team to give the job to Seb Larsson or even Carlos Cuellar, who have both plenty of experience playing there.

Di Canio, though, wanted to keep the shape and personnel of his side as similar as possible to the one which crushed Newcastle – especially as he appreciated the threat of an Everton side which had held Arsenal to a goalless draw at the Emirates four days earlier.

Everton boss David Moyes made two changes to that side – fit-again Leon Osman replacing Ross Barkley and John Heitinga coming in for injured centre-back Phil Jagielka.

The visitors’ line-up still looked formidable but, buoyed by a crowd which had excitedly welcomed Di Canio to his first home game as Sunderland head coach, the hosts took the game to Everton from the start.

Moyes was to complain later that his team didn’t play well, but the truth was that they played only as well as Sunderland would let them.

The visitors started solidly enough, winning a succession of corners from which they were entitled to expect to prosper, given their height advantage.

But if Simon Mignolet wasn’t plucking the centres out of the sky, then his team-mates were heading or hoofing clear or, in one memorable moment, using the twinkle-toed genius of Stephane Sessegnon to surge upfield on the counter.

Despite Everton’s obvious menace, Sunderland gave as good as they got, stroking the ball around well.

And the best early chance fell their way when Seb Larsson headed forward from the centre circle in the fifth minute and Danny Graham entered the penalty area but saw his shot charged down by keeper Tim Howard, who was out quickly to block.

Larsson’s free-kicks have not been as dangerous as usual in recent weeks, but he was on top of his game against Everton with the three that came his way before the break.

His first, in the 12th minute, after Marouane Fellaini’s foul on Sessegnon, saw him clip a shot from 20 yards, out on the left, against the top of Howard’s crossbar.

A second free-kick from a near-identical position in the 39th minute flashed just a couple of inches wide of the far post, with Howard beaten.

And, in the 43rd minute, he did manage to get a free-kick on target, a superb effort technically, which dipped over the wall and forced Howard into an agile block, diving full length to his right.

Seconds later, and just before half-time, Sunderland took the lead when Larsson intercepted a dreadful pass from Leighton Baines in midfield and fed Sessegnon, who advanced to the edge of the area and struck a low shot under and across Howard – the keeper diving to his right and getting a fingertip to the ball but powerless to prevent it sneaking into the bottom right-hand corner of his goal.

It was Sessegnon’s second goal in consecutive games, his seventh of the season.

At half-time, everyone knew Everton’s threat was far from over – they had only been contained in the first half by Sunderland’s workrate and organisation.

And when they had threatened to break through midway through the half, Cuellar had produced a brilliant bit of defending to deny Fellaini from a ball over the top – the Spaniard nodding the ball away from the Belgian and volleying clear under pressure.

Given their sticky record against the Toffees, nothing could be taken for granted, especially when the Blues started the resumption with an immediate change – striker Nikica Jelavic coming on for midfielder Darron Gibson.

The crowd had been thrilled by their side’s fight in the first half, but the second period was even better as Everton pushed and Sunderland fought fire with fire.

It said everything about the improvement in Sunderland’s defence, midfield and attack that they were able to match and cancel out their high-flying opponents.

There was little in the way of efforts on target, despite the attacking intent of both sides and the biggest threat to Sunderland’s goal came in the 76th minute when Mignolet was forced to catch, both hands over his head, a massively over-hit back pass from Larsson.

That gave Baines a shot at redemption from 11 yards out, but his powerful drive, following an indirect free-kick, was charged down by Adam Johnson and each one of three clearances made by Sunderland as Everton tried to keep the pressure on was cheered to the rafters by a rapt home crowd.

Sunderland might have got a second goal in the 82nd minute when Johnson was set free up the right, but his sprint ended with him driving his shot straight at Howard from a narrow angle.

It hardly mattered as Sunderland successfully saw the game out, N’Diaye showing a great appetite for hard work and frustrating Everton’s usually dominant midfield, while Colback played his part in Sunderland’s second clean sheet in a row.

Everton had late appeals for a penalty when Jelavic and Rose tugged each other’s sleeves, but bogey referee Phil Dowd – Sunderland have not won any of the last dozen games he has officiated – decided it was not clear-cut.

They say the harder you work in football, the luckier you get.

The final whistle brought the sort of tumultuous applause from a supportive crowd rarely seen since Peter Reid’s teams were in their pomp at the Stadium of Light.

Delighted Di Canio – before going out to hug his players and acknowledge the fans – turned towards the West Stand and raised two arms aloft to the owner, pointedly dedicating the win to him.

It was a victory which, if followed up, as we can surely expect it to be, will keep Sunderland in the Premier League and guarantee dozens of millions of pounds revenue from the bumper TV deal next season will roll into the Stadium of Light.

It is impossible to read the thoughts of the inscrutable Short, who was smiling broadly as Di Canio acknowledged him.

But perhaps if just one thought was passing through his mind at that moment in time, it could well have been this: “Cure!”

Twitter @sunechograeme