If I wasn’t impressed listening to Sunderland v Everton on TalkSport, imagine what it as like as viewed from my row in the East Stand. Pete Sixsmith was there …
Ah, Christmas. The time of year when friends come together, to eat drink and be merry, to enjoy wonderful hospitality – and to end up at the Stadium of Light, with 46,000 others, watching Sunderland extend the hand of friendship to relegation threatened Everton, by allowing them to do exactly what they wanted to do for an hour.
There’s nothing wrong with being a good host or hostess. It’s great to allow people to enjoy themselves in your house. But when things get a bit out of hand – they start on your best Malt whisky, they put their feet on the furniture, they demand to watch Ant and Dec – you have to put your foot down, take control of the situation and stop them by seizing the initiative and putting them in their place.
This did not happen on Saturday. For 25 minutes, Everton were the perfect guests in that they meekly allowed us, the hosts, to have our own way and do what we wanted to. Then, they became the party guests from hell as they began to do what they wanted to do and, by preventing us from taking them apart, they stopped us from enjoying ourselves.
For the first quarter of the game, they looked like a side low on confidence and with all the problems of the world piled on their shoulders; a crumbling stadium, no money, an injury list longer than that of those suspected of bumping off Archie Mitchell. We were able to take control and we looked full of running and confidence.
Fellaini was forced deep to mark Jones, rendering Everton impotent as an attacking force, and when we scored a quite magnificent goal, there was real optimism, even amongst us grouches in the East Stand.
If you weren’t there, imagine this sequence: Bardsley plays a good, well paced ball up to Bent, who flicks it on with his head to Jones, who takes it in his stride and begins to move down the wing.
Bent continues his run away from the tiny Hetinga and the portly Neill and is unmarked in the box. Jones has seen this and plays a perfect ball, just the right weight and pace, and Bent meets it with the middle of his forehead to thump it past Howard and into the Everton goal. 44,000 red and whites stand in unison, with grins as big as the ones on a kid’s face when they open their presents on Christmas Day. This is the start of the end of the slump. Confidence will be sky high. Watch out Fulham, Birmingham, Spurs, here we come.
Except it wasn’t like that, because our midfield, once again, failed to perform and allowed the excellent Fellaini and the ever industrious Pienaar to take over. We never got to grips with either for the remaining three quarters of the game and a point was the least our Christmas visitors deserved. I was not confident that we would hold out, and once Mensah limped off, it was only a matter of time before the equalised came. After that, I had visions of another “Cahill 92 mins” moment, but we clung on for a point.
I presume that the management team don’t give instructions to defend in the penalty box. Bruce and Black seem to expend huge amounts of energy waving their arms, trying to get us up the field. So, why do we do it?
We have two decent centre halves in Mensah (who I thought was outstanding) and Da Silva (who reads a game as well as anyone since Martin Harvey). The problems are the flanks and Pienaar was not bothered whether he ran at Bardsley or McCartney. Both just about stopped him from running away with the game, but his influence was considerable. And once Fellaini stopped being an auxiliary defender and did what he is very good at i.e. picking the ball up deep and either running with it or playing a penetrative ball, we were in trouble.
As you may well have realised, our midfield did none of these things. Malbranque played like a man who knows he is on his way to Lille or Lens or Leicester City. Attacking contribution, nil, defending contribution, minus 2. At least when Zenden came on, he gave us fifteen minutes of optimism as he ran at defenders as opposed to running across them.
Cana without Cattermole is like Wise without Morecambe, Garfunkel without Simon and George House without Mike Neville; it just doesn’t work. He was much more subdued and managed to avoid a booking, but whereas with Cattermole, we have the footballing equivalent of The Boxer, on his own it’s more like Bright Eyes.
So, where from here? We had 33% of the possession in this game and a fair bit of that was wasted with the ball being hoofed up field in the general direction of Jones and Bent. These two are good, but far too much is demanded of both and decent defenders have worked out how to play them. Kenwyne needs the ball played in front of him. He is wonderfully athletic, as the goal showed, and give him a ball to run on to and he will flourish. Expect him to be Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey and you will be disappointed. Play to his strengths. Bent is a penalty box man, not a forward who does his best work away from goal. Play to his strengths as well.
We now have three B’s in a row. Three wins against Blackburn (difficult), Barrow (anything other than a win would be unthinkable) and Bolton (start the second half of the season as we started the first), plus the introduction in the window of a couple of full backs and a winger, will send me from the Stygian gloom I inhabit at the moment to the peak of Mount Olympus as we march on to Wembley and a top 8 place. Let’s be a bad host and an unwanted guest in 2010.