Back in 1994, Gus Poyet and Roberto Martinez were midfield partners in the Real Zaragoza side that won the Copa del Rey. Twenty years on, they are heading in opposite directions.
For Poyet and Sunderland, trips to Bournemouth, Huddersfield and possibly Brentford are beckoning following another point-less 90 minutes of Premier League endeavour, a fifth successive defeat, self-inflicted by a Wes Brown own goal 15 minutes from time.
The Black Cats remain seven points from the safety zone. Their next two fixtures are Manchester City away and Chelsea away.
For Martinez and Everton, Champions’ League football is on the horizon. A club record seventh successive Premier League win has made them members of the Fab Four, two points clear of Arsenal.
Can the Toffees stick there? “That’s the objective,” Martinez said. “We’re going into new ground. We have 66 points now, the highest in Everton’s Premier League history. We’ve got five games left. We’ll take it step by step.”
Sadly, the afternoon did not get off to the most edifying of starts. The minute’s silence for the 96 Liverpool fans who perished at Hillsborough 25 years ago was broken, seemingly inadvertently, by chanting fans making their way up through the stairs of the stand to the away section. It prompted a bout of unseemly booing and catcalling between both sets of fans before the intended mark of respect could be concluded.
It was unfortunate but no disrespect was intended. As Martinez observed: “There were a couple of shouts by people entering the ground. It was a clear incident of a group who were unaware.” Thankfully, once play began, there was no lingering bitterness in the air.
Having despaired at Poyet’s costly deployment of three central defenders and two defensive midfielders in Sunderland’s three previous matches, the home fans were relieved to see a starting XI more capable of seizing some initiative.
Out went the hapless Santiago Vergini and Carlos Cuellar, John O’Shea returning to partner Brown at the heart of defence. Out too went Liam Bridcutt, whose partner had gone into labour. Whether Poyet’s charges could end the pregnant pause since their last league win, at Newcastle on 1 February, was another matter.
Not setting out on the back foot was an obvious help. With Jack Colback adding substance in midfield and Connor Wickham providing a focal point up front, Sunderland had a more assured, structured look.
Still, Everton’s pace and mobility posed them problems. The visitors ought to have been ahead in the 14th minute but Steven Naismith blazed a shot on the turn over the bar with the home goal at his mercy. At the other end, John Stones did well to block a Fabio Borini drive and James McCarthy did likewise to an Adam Johnson effort.
The momentum was with Sunderland at the start of the second half. They pressed forward with increasing confidence and, from a Johnson corner on the left, Phil Bardsley had a header blocked in the goalmouth by Leighton Baines. Marcos Alonso and Ki Sung-Yeung also tested Tim Howard from distance.
Everton’s lively Gerard Deulofeu was always a threat, though, and in the 75th minute the Barcelona loanee forced the error that settled the outcome. Twisting past Alonso on the right, he clipped the ball into the goalmouth and Brown deflected it off his thighs past the despairing Vito Mannone.
Sunderland still pressed. Ki, Wickham and Borini went close, but not close enough. Ultimately, a sixth own goal of the season sealed Sunderland’s fate. “It’s difficult to take, but losing to an own goal is not an excuse,” Poyet reflected. “We need a change of fortune but we’re running out of games. The quality of the opposition in the next two makes it very difficult for us.” It does, that.
Sunderland (4-1-2-2-1): Mannone; Bardsley, Brown, O’Shea, Alonso; Cattermole;Colback (Larsson, 70),Ki; Johnson, Borini; Wickham
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Distin, Baines; Barry, McCarthy; Deulofeu (McGeady, 78), Naismith, Osman (Barkley, 58) ; Lukaku.
Referee: Lee Probert.
Man of the match: Deulofeu (Everton).
Match rating: 7/10.