Everton 1 Sunderland 1: Chris Young’s verdict

James McClean is sandwiched by Phil Neville (right) and Seamus Coleman
James McClean is sandwiched by Phil Neville (right) and Seamus Coleman
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SEVERAL individuals could stake a claim when it came to providing a snapshot summary of what was ultimately a far more entertaining cup tie than the cagey affair expected.

Phil Bardsley for the sweetest of 25-yard angled drives before bolting to the 6,000 ecstatic Wearsiders crammed into the rickety timber beams and pillars of Goodison Park.

Tim Cahill for continuing his uncanny role as Sunderland’s pantomime villain with an eighth goal against the Black Cats after readjusting astutely to re-direct Nikica Jelavic’s inadvertent flick-on.

And Simon Mignolet for producing a double save which wasn’t quite Montgomery-esque, yet still proved pivotal in thwarting Everton’s best opening of their second-half pressure.

But when it comes to concluding the difference between a first half when Sunderland looked capable of an outright place in the semi-finals and a second 45 minutes where they were grateful to still be in the hat, James McClean’s role and impact displayed the marked sea-change.

This shouldn’t be seen as a slight on McClean, merely a commentary on how Sunderland’s rising star personified the contrasting attacking threats Martin O’Neill’s side posed in either half.

The surprisingly open first exchanges played into the Sunderland winger’s hands and the continuing end-to-end nature of the first half saw the Wearsiders’ most potent weapon revel as the thorn in Everton’s side.

From the moment the 22-year-old burst beyond Phil Neville to earn Sunderland a fourth-minute corner, the former Manchester United and England defender was wary of the threat posed from his opposite man.

Everton were quick to double up on McClean, with right-winger Seamus Coleman dropping back to give Neville a helping hand, particularly when the latter found himself in the book for bringing down the ex-Derry City man in the ninth minute.

Such an early yellow card should have prompted Sunderland to almost over-use McClean’s willingness to run at the full-back, knowing Neville’s inability to once more catch the eye of Andre Marriner.

McClean and Fraizer Campbell were still threats in Everton’s side on the break, particularly with the Toffees using a high line as they pushed to reverse the early deficit, but, for all the former’s promise, Sunderland struggled to use him sufficiently to muster an opportunity for a second.

But McClean’s first-half impact had clearly rattled David Moyes, who instructed Neville to get far tighter to the Sunderland man, rather than handing him the opportunity to build up a head of steam.

That wasn’t the only change though. The very nature of the game evolving from an open, “old-fashioned” cup tie to the cat-and-mouse encounter predicted beforehand, didn’t suit McClean.

There was no longer the room for the Republic of Ireland international to run with the ball and such was Everton’s dominance of possession and Sunderland’s knack of cheaply surrendering it when they did win it back, McClean almost became peripheral.

It wasn’t until the introduction of David Vaughan that Sunderland were able to cope with Everton’s midfield dominance as Cahill dropped into a far deeper role after taking a blow to his side in the first half.

Whenever McClean did get an opportunity on the counter-attack, he was plagued by Sunderland’s tired legs as they struggled to push sufficient bodies forward to support him.

Without the pace of the suspended Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland were never the threat on the break that they have mastered in O’Neill’s three-and-a-half month reign.

It was too static, too leggy and with Sylvain Distin making short shrift of Campbell’s pace when the duo went head to head, Everton barely broke sweat, other than from Seb Larsson’s mixed bag of set piece deliveries.

With few options in support and Wayne Bridge unable to offer the same sort of attacking threat as Kieran Richardson, too often McClean attempted the impossible in beating the gang of blue jerseys in attendance and inevitably surrendered possession as a consequence.

Perhaps that is an area where McClean will learn as he grows in top-flight experience, playing the percentages and going backwards to keep the ball, rather than going for the Hollywood run.

But it’s tough to blame the £350,000 summer buy. In a second half where Sunderland were largely devoid of attacking ideas, McClean at least attempted to muster something from nothing.

Sessegnon’s return for the replay will certainly be welcomed by O’Neill because, when the Black Cats can provide a slick threat on the break, they are formidable opposition given their fortitude at the back.

John O’Shea and Michael Turner continue to impress as a central defensive duo, no mean feat on Merseyside considering the aerial threat posed by Everton’s trio of Jelavic, Cahill and Marouane Fellaini in looking to latch onto the well-flighted deliveries of Leighton Baines.

O’Shea and Turner are getting plenty of protection though, with Jack Colback again impressing in the absence of Lee Cattermole as he stepped up to the physical challenge of going toe to toe with frizzle-haired midfield behemoth Fellaini.

Squeezing Cattermole back into the starting line-up at the expense of replacement Colback will be a far tougher decision for O’Neill to make than finding a place for Sessegnon.

Certainly, the likes of McClean won’t begrudge the return of the Benin international.