Mick McCarthy and his resilient players are in a rapidly decreasing minority of footballing folk who feel Sunderland can escape relegation this season. An eighth defeat at home in the Premiership this season simply reinforced the view of the increasing majority that the Wearsiders have nothing but pride to play for in 2006.
"For the most part it was a very enjoyable, terrific performance full of energy and good football," McCarthy said. "The one cruel bit is in the 92nd minute when we conceded. If we continue to play like we did this afternoon, we will pick up points."
Everton's Tim Cahill survived a second-half penalty appeal to apply the killer touch to Kevin Kilbane's right-sided corner three minutes into injury time after the home team had spurned a series of inviting chances. And where Sunderland will reflect on another missed opportunity, this could be the result which transforms David Moyes' season.
Heavy first touches, nervous distribution and the absence of any hint of predatory instinct in front of goal made for an insipid start. But if Everton's confidence had been eroded by four successive defeats, then their hosts should have been on a high after claiming a first point in 30 against Bolton on Boxing Day.
In reality, a 0-0 draw against Wanderers had done little to change the footballing landscape on Wearside. Sunderland's position is beyond perilous; the Black Cats began 2005 on course for promotion but Mick McCarthy's men played their final game of the year as certainties for a swift return to the championship. "Whether a point would have made any difference in terms of us staying up or going down, I don't know," McCarthy said. "Time will tell. But it would have made us feel a lot better."
One glance at the home side's starting 11 demonstrated the root of the problem. Only Gary Breen, Steve Caldwell, Jonathan Stead and Julio Arca could boast significant experience of the Premiership prior to this season.
Everton may lack cohesion but top-flight pedigree is in abundance at Goodison Park, and if Moyes' men are to escape relegation then their fate will rest on the shoulders of Nigel Martyn, David Weir, Kilbane, James Beattie and their ilk. All four played their part in the solid, if unspectacular, first-half performance which Moyes will have demanded after the embarrassing defeats against Bolton, Aston Villa and Liverpool which had plunged the Merseysiders into crisis. In keeping their hosts at bay for 45 forgettable minutes, Everton had, at the very least, resembled a team capable of keeping a clean sheet.
Sunderland did their best to shatter that impression by producing the game's best spell of play after the break and it was subsititute Anthony Le Tallec who found himself at the heart of the home team's newly discovered attacking verve. In combination with the increasingly mobile Stead, the on-loan Liverpool striker seemed intent on punishing the blue half of Merseyside. Both Le Tallec and Stead came close to breaking the deadlock but a flurry of chances yielded nothing, much to the disappointment of a crowd showing commendable support in the face of frustration.
When Cahill escaped punishment for an apparent handball in the Everton area with 16 minutes remaining, it appeared the home side's increased endeavour would count for nothing. And when the Australian international converted Kilbane's header in the third minute of injury time, the home team had every right to revise their view that survival is a possibility.
"I'm sure if I was sitting on the Sunderland bench, I'd be disappointed that we had not got something out of the game," said Everton assistant manager Alan Irvine. "We have been missing Tim's goals. They were a huge bonus for us last year and, hopefully, that's the start of a nice run of goals for him."Reuse content