Well, now this really needs to work.
David Moyes made a mighty gamble by capitulating the Merseyside derby before kickoff, and now fans expect that gamble to pay off. By resting key players against Liverpool in preparation for their weekend FA Cup tie, Moyes boldly proclaimed to Everton Nation that hardware, not bragging rights or table movement, comes first.
While a 3-0 loss to their more established crosstown rivals is a hard pill for Evertonians to swallow, in my mind Moyes’ move was acceptable. The head man proved how serious he is about earning Everton’s first trophy since 1995; now his team has to back him up.
Advancing past Sunderland in Saturday’s quarterfinal will be easier said than done. No doubt the motivation will be there for Everton, but can that translate to a winning performance? The two sides took a point apiece when they met in late December, but things have changed since then.
Everton are stronger up front now then they were, with Nikica Jelavic and Denis Stracqualursi providing key goals against top-tier Premiership opposition. Steven Pienaar is cup-tied after returning on loan from Tottenham, but Royston Drenthe still mans the midfield. With that attacking edge, a 1-1 draw might not be in the cards.
By contrast, Sunderland will be short-handed this time around. In punishment for their red cards against northern rival Newcastle, both Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon will miss the weekend match. Without their captain or leading goal scorer, who will step up for the Black Cats?
As for the elements that remain on both sides, keep an eye on these six battles going into the weekend fixture.
The most critical individual battle for either side to win will not in fact be a battle of individuals. Instead, the FA Cup match between Everton and Sunderland will hinge on a contest of units: midfield against midfield.
Whichever team can apply the most attacking pressure through their midfield should walk away with a win. Without Lee Cattermole directing traffic, Sunderland will be at a disadvantage when Everton’s pacey creators set upon them.
The Toffees' duo of Leon Osman and Royston Drenthe are both whirling dervishes of invention, each with the ability to initiate or finish goal-scoring moves with skill and aplomb. Martin O’Neill’s side will be hard pressed to find midfielders who can keep both at bay for 90 minutes.
If Everton can control possession in the midfield and keep Sunderland on their back foot, they should emerge victorious.
Assisting Everton’s midfield in attack will most likely be newly acquired center forward Nikica Jelavic up top. His battle with Black Cat center-backs John O’Shea and Michael Turner will be key for both sides’ success.
It’s a safe bet that Moyes plans to start the Croatian international come Saturday after removing him from the starting XI against Liverpool. Jelavic was in the mood during Everton’s 1-0 win over Tottenham, scoring the lone goal and nearly beating Brad Friedel again on a free kick.
Charged with slowing the former Rangers goal-scorer down will be O’Shea and Turner in the middle, two players who have not let Sunderland down often. They most recently kept a clean sheet against Liverpool and Luis Suarez, a difficult task for most.
If Jelavic is allowed to run rampant in front of net, Everton should make short work of the Black Cats. It will be up to O’Shea and Turner to mark him. Failure to do so will effectively end Sunderland’s cup run.
If you’re craving a one-on-one battle to focus on, you could do worse than observing Leighton Baines battle with Sebastian Larsson on the outside. Both men like to get forward and score goals, the only difference being the position they play.
As an adventurous left-back, Baines will have to be careful when Larsson moves forward. As a midfielder, Larsson can afford to attack without worrying as much about his defensive responsibilities as Baines will. There’s a line of defense behind Larsson should he lose Baines, but the same can’t be said for the English international.
Larsson has already proven he can score goals this season with six across all competitions. It will be interesting to see if Baines can contain him while still getting forward like he usually does.
If Sunderland can keep Baines from advancing to far up the field, it will go a long way to stifling Everton’s attack from their left.
Though Sunderland will lack arguably their best attacker in Stephane Sessegnon, the cupboard is hardly bare up front. The Black Cats got a huge lift this week when striker Nicklas Bendtner, who was stretchered off against Liverpool, suffered little damage in his knee and will be match-fit come Saturday.
On loan from Arsenal, Bendtner is second on the team in goal scoring, netting the winner against Liverpool before departing with a knock. He’ll be Sunderland’s go-to man for goals against Everton, and will most likely match up against Toffee center-back Sylvain Distin.
Having fully recovered from an injury that saw him miss significant time in the middle of the year, Distin is back in defense for Everton, and his physical presence is much appreciated. The Frenchman was a bit disappointing against Liverpool earlier in the week, allowing three goals by Steven Gerrard. Regardless, he will charged with marking Bendtner on Saturday.
If Distin can be a little sharper than he was against the Reds, Bendtner will have to work extraordinarily hard if he wishes to find his name on the scoresheet.
One of the more important battles of the match will take place on the sidelines between the team’s respective managers.
David Moyes has already proved how much this match means to him with his selection against Liverpool. It’s his neck on the line if Everton lose against Sunderland after sacrificing (in the minds of the fans) the most important game of the season. It will be interesting to see who takes the field for Everton as a substitute, as Moyes will undoubtedly field something close to a first team.
As for his opposite pacing the Sunderland bench, Martin O’Neill has dramatically improved the Northerners' fortunes after his appointment midseason. The four wins he earned in his first six games with the Black Cats were no accident, nor was it chance that placed Sunderland in the FA Cup quarterfinals. His team outplayed Arsenal to reach this position, and they are currently rising in the league table.
Both men bring solid credentials to the weekend showdown, and I honestly can’t separate them at the moment. Moyes has more riding on this match, but O’Neill might be the better tactician by a hair.
Home-field advantage in the Premiership is exemplified at few better grounds than Goodison Park. On their familiar pitch, Everton seem a different side, grinding out results against better teams that seem ill at ease in unfriendly territory.
Consider Everton’s last three league wins. All three came against top-five opposition (Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham), and all three came at Goodison Park. Not only did they seem the better side in all three fixtures, but they did not allow a goal against opposition that had beaten them by a combined score of 7-1 away from Merseyside.
Sunderland will have to contend with this strong home form from Everton on Saturday. Everton are playing arguably their best football as of late (with the exception of the Liverpool debacle), and they’re doing so at home.
Sunderland will find it difficult to get a result against the Toffees at Goodison Park, but if they can scratch out a draw, they would have the advantage in a replay. Everton haven't won a match away from home in any competition since January 1st against West Brom.
If Everton are to move on to the semifinals, they had best do so Saturday and not risk a reply. If recent history is any indicator, the fact that they are at home is a hopeful sign.
Everton 2-1, with goals from Nikica Jelavic and Leon Osman. On the road without key contributors, I don’t see Sunderland having enough to pull the upset.