CHRIS YOUNG: Sunderland will find Everton hard to crack

Gus Poyet.
Gus Poyet.
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THREE WEEKS ago, Gus Poyet set a target of doubling Sunderland’s points tally by the end of 2013.

It was optimistic, but with games on the horizon against Aston Villa, West Ham, Norwich and Cardiff, it wasn’t impossible.

But in the first four of those six fixtures before the end of the calendar year, the Black Cats have mustered just three points.

Sunderland must beat both Everton on Boxing Day and a chaos-ridden Cardiff City 48 hours later to reach that hallowed tally of 16 points.

Doesn’t look great, does it?

Realistically, anything on Merseyside on Thursday will be welcomed with open arms.

Although Sunderland secured a first victory over the Toffees since 2000 with April’s crucial win at the Stadium of Light, Goodison Park remains an ominous environment.

Not since November 1996 has there been any red and joy in the rickety old surroundings of Goodison.

But even worse than the Everton hoodoo, is the current form of Roberto Martinez’s side.

While the focus has centered on the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs in the tightly-poised race for Champions League places, Everton have gone under the radar.

The Toffees’ potential to gatecrash the top four is only beginning to be realised and so it should because Martinez’s men are genuine contenders.

Defensively, Everton have benefited from several years with the same combination across the back four, while the astute signings of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy - a Sunderland target during the summer - coupled with the meteoric rise of Ross Barkley have added quality in midfield.

The return of Leighton Baines on Boxing Day only strengthens the hosts’ hand.

But it is the on-loan capture of Romelu Lukaku which has really transformed Everton’s prospects from the David Moyes era.

After watching the ineffective Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres leading Chelsea’s line in the last month, it still baffles why Jose Mourinho saw fit to let Lukaku depart for a season.

Is there really a better combination of power, pace and composed finishing in the Premier League than the Belgian?

Lukaku ripped Sunderland to pieces when he was at West Brom last season and he has only got better since then.

Even more ominous is that the 20-year-old will be coming up against a Sunderland back-line deprived of its top performer after Wes Brown’s totally unnecessary red card on Saturday.

Valentin Roberge will almost certainly take Brown’s place and the Frenchman has shown signs of improvement over recent weeks on the training ground. Certainly, when he came on at Stoke City for the dismissed Brown, the Bosman arrival produced one of his best performances for the Black Cats.

Poyet will just hope that John O’Shea can shake off the shoulder problem he sustained against Norwich, otherwise a very makeshift central defensive partnership of Roberge and Modibo Diakite would face a mountainous task.

There will surely be other changes from Poyet after such an error-ridden display against the Canaries.

Steven Fletcher will hope to be recalled to the starting line-up at the expense of Jozy Altidore, while Adam Johnson and Jack Colback also offer fresh legs. Only Lee Cattermole, Phil Bardsley and Vito Mannone can lay any genuine claim to keeping their spots after such a blown opportunity.

It would perhaps be typical of Sunderland to make a mockery of such predictions of doom and gloom after the Norwich stalemate by securing an unexpected victory four days later.

But it really would be a seismic upset.

Everton haven’t lost at home in the Premier League since December 2012. Their objective of going one year unbeaten at Goodison is firmly within their grasp.

Verdict: Home win