For anyone who needs to know what went wrong last night, the search ends with this quite superb account by Pete Sixsmith, which Monsieur Salut humbly commends to a certain Mr O’Neill, of how Everton were able to make such light work of Sunderland and end, in disheartening style, our Wembley hopes …
If residents of the North East heard a crashing sound last night, it was our hopes of reaching an FA Cup semi-final hitting the ground with a bang equivalent to that of Billy Bunter, Hattie Jacques and Oliver Norvell Hardy all landing on the bouncy castle at the same time and deflating it.
For, deflated we were as Everton gave us a lesson in how to win important football matches and in how to treasure and revere a manager.
From start to finish, they were so much better than us and all the weaknesses that MON has managed to paper over in four tremendous months in charge were exposed for the world and his wife or civil partner to see.
Straight away, the Toffees took the initiative and had us on the back foot. Fellaini was quite imperious in the first half, running the game and swatting off irritants like Cattermole, Gardner and Sessegnon with almost casual disdain. We huffed and puffed around him, but never once were we able to catch him out or force him on to the back foot.
Our defence, which has looked steady all season, was never at ease. Turner and O’Shea is a partnership of different styles; take the Irishman out and replace him with the willing Kyrgiakos and the balance goes. He and Turner are too similar, both big men who use muscle rather than subtlety to try to wrest control.
We needed subtlety in spades last night as Everton played the ball on the ground and, if it went aerial, dropped it in front of the defenders. In Jelavic, they had the ideal man for the job, a centre forward who worked, ran wide and, most importantly, was there in the box when he was needed.
Compared with him, Bendtner was forced to play too deep, and his attempts to come away with the ball were foiled by a quick-tackling Everton midfield and a defence that blocked off Sessegnon and McClean every time.
Not one of our players could impose himself on the game. This was not because they are poor players or because we are tactically inept, but because Everton knew exactly what they had to do. Simple instructions: stop Sess, stop McClean and they will have no way of hurting us. They got it absolutely right.
Throughout the game, there was nowhere for our attacking players to go. Every time the likes of Gardner or Larsson looked to make a telling pass, there was an Osman or a Cahill to block it. And if it did get through, Silvan Distin was there to eat it up. He gave as good an exhibition of centre half play as I have seen in ages and never once looked as if he was going to be bettered by Bendtner or Sess.
By the time Jelavic stroked the first goal in, there had been several narrow escapes. Mignolet, who had yet another excellent game, had made a blistering save from the former Rangers man before he was left unmarked in the box to open the scoring. Neither Turner nor Kyrgiakos picked him up and they looked at each other as if to say “I thought YOU were marking him”.
The second half got no better. As on Saturday, O’Neill took a gamble and sent on Vaughan in the hope that we might just be able to get a foothold in midfield. Alas, within two minutes, the Welshman gave away a comical own goal by kicking the ball against his own leg and guiding it over the line to wrap up Everton’s win.
The rest of the game consisted of our frantic and unsuccessful attempts to salvage something from yet another disappointing night for Sunderland fans. But we never troubled Tim Howard and we had to sit back and listen to the Everton support extol their manager and Jelavic. It was not an enjoyable experience.
So where did we go wrong? With hindsight, the Cattermole/Gardner combination did not work. The lack of a creative player in the centre of the park was glaringly obvious and Fellaini was allowed to strut his stuff without being challenged. When he plays like he did last night, he is quite magnificent and is the kind of player that most PL clubs would love to have. We have/had nobody to challenge him.
The back four looked rickety and the distribution was poor. Bridge did well enough, but Bardsley had a disappointing game and reminded us that effort and determination are not really substitutes for quality.
Our lack of creativity was exposed in midfield as both wide players were marked out of the game. McClean will have learned that not all full backs are as accommodating as Luke Young and that when you come up against a wily old campaigner like Phil Neville, you have to think a wee bit more.
It leaves us with eight league games to play, all of which, apart from the trips to Villa and Fulham, will have an impact on the title, Champions League qualification or relegation.
On Saturday, we visit Eastlands/Etihad. Abu Dhabi Rovers have won every game there this season. The manager’s powers of persuasion and his ability to install a modicum of self believe into his players will be severely tested after last night: not the night of glory we expected, but yet another in the long chapter of Great Sunderland Missed Opportunities.