Everton sealed their place in the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup with a convincing 2-0 victory against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Enticingly, Everton will now face Liverpool at Wembley with a chance to avenge their crushing recent defeat at Anfield.
The Football Association’s policy of staging the Cup’s semi-finals at Wembley has its detractors but the frantic energy inside the Stadium of Light leading up to kick-off was a testament to both sets of supporters’ craving to see their team seal a trip to the famous arena. Farcically, Everton’s pre-match preparations were disrupted when they arrived at the stadium late due to heavy traffic. The travelling party has insisted on leaving their team hotel earlier to account for the game’s high attendance but this request was ignored by the local police (as it apparently often is) and Everton arrived later at the ground than they would have liked. This misdemeanour did nothing to discourage the visitors though as they dealt with the occasion coolly and thrived in the searing atmosphere to take the initiative during the early stages.
Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal carried his form the previous encounter between the two sides into this game, denying Tim Cahill’s powerful close range header with a superb reflex save. More chances for the visitors followed as the combination of Marouane Fellaini and Darron Gibson took control of possession in midfield whilst the panache of both Leon Osman and Magaye Gueye on the flanks ensured that Cahill and Nikica Jelavic were able to assert their aerial dominance in the Sunderland box. Mignolet remained equal to this threat however, dealing well with headers from Cahill and Jelavic.
As Everton’s momentum continued to garner a goal seemed imminent. On 24 minutes the hosts succumbed to the pressure. Gueye found himself free of Phil Bardsley down the Everton left to slap a ferocious low cross into the box. Jelavic duly obliged, losing his marker to expertly guide the ball into the bottom corner, sending the 6000 travelling supporters wild.
In response Sunderland struggled to impose themselves on the flow of the game, with the restored central defensive pairing of Sylvain Distin and John Heitinga dealing well with any attempt to break the Everton resistance. With 32 minutes played the Mackems finally mustered a goal-scoring opportunity. James McClean found himself free for the first time out wide to send in a delightful ball towards Nicklas Bendtner but just as it looked like the Dane was about to smash in the equaliser Leighton Baines intervened with a toe-poking clearance to preserve the Toffees’ lead.
Everton remained dominant after the break and could have extended their lead when Osman’s smarting volley whistled narrowly wide of the top corner before Gibson had a shot blocked from inside the box following Gueye’s neat cut-back. Martin O’Neill then decisively chose to counter his team’s sluggishness by introducing David Vaughan into the fray, a move that proved pivotal.Vaughan sloppily gave the ball away, enabling Jelavic to force a parry from Mignolet and as Vaughan rushed back to rid the loose ball from the box he instead steered the ball comically into the Sunderland net.
Sunderland needed a quick response if they were to entertain any hopes of staying alive in the tie and Stephane Sessegnon so nearly provided the hosts with a lifeline just three minutes afterVaughan’s moment of horror. Tim Howard had misjudged a corner-kick as the ball found Sessegnon who struck the ball on the volley, his effort could only hit the woodwork though and after this escape Everton assumed their dominance in the game.
Driven on by the frenzy of their away support, the Toffees continued to implement their pressing game to great effect as Sunderland were incessantly forced into mistakes as the visitors pressed for a third. Jelavic was unlucky not to double his tally; firing inches wide of the post after Cahill had found him in him in the box before again forcing Mignolet to save well from another effort. Magaye Gueye, who had been confident throughout the game, could have capped his impressive performance with a goal but fired over the bar from outside the box as the visitors eased their way towards the game’s close of play. Frazier Campbell nearly grabbed a late consolation goal for the Mackems but stumbled when one-on-one with Howard at the crucial moment to end his side’s F.A. Cup campaign for this season.
The final whistle sparked further jubilant celebrations in the Everton end and the players took great enjoyment in celebrating their well deserved passage into the semi-finals in front of the fans. Notably, David Moyes was nowhere to be seen and he will be aware that his side have won nothing of great significance as of yet. Standing in the way of Moyes in his quest to bring silverware back to Goodison Park is the challenge of Merseyside rivals Liverpool, a team who have become a psychological barrier that has proven to be unsurpassable of late for Everton. Regardless of the outcome, followers of English football can now relish the return of the Merseyside derby to Wembley for the first time since 1989 as this amazing F.A. Cup season continues for both clubs.
[image credit: telegraph.co.uk]