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Goodison woes continue for Black Cats
MARTIN O'NEILL said, before Saturday's game, that he wasn't aware of Sunderland's Goodison Park hoodoo.
When he arrived at the ground, he was given a reminder. Whether intentionally or not, the corridors leading towards Sunderland's changing room were lined with framed pictures of the Black Cats' 7-0 defeat in 2007-08.
All week, the club's official website showed reels of Everton thrashing Sunderland, of which plenty of archive footage was available.
But while Sunderland were 20 minutes away from victory on Merseyside, O'Neill was left in no doubt that there are dark forces at work which are seemingly preventing Sunderland from ever picking up victory at Everton's grand old stadium.
However, there are dark forces, and Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian played a pivotal role in turning the game around to firstly cancel out Adam Johnson's opener, then supply Nikica Jelavic with an assist to score the winner.
O'Neill has admitted that even he, a staunch pragmatist, is starting to believe in hoodoos.
"I really hadn't thought about it before it was mentioned on Friday. We drew with Everton in the cup last season, though," said O'Neill.
"There may well be an element of it now because you wouldn't come much closer to breaking it. It was very hard to draw statistics from that performance. We were very unlucky in the game.
"The players have taken a lot of confidence from it. You wouldn't know it from the dressing room after the game, but some players have come back to form and that's important for us.
"We've lost a game against what I would consider a very, very strong outfit but we'll come back."
Ironically, Fellaini made the Everton breakthrough moments after being handed a deeper, defensive role. But O'Neill feels there is no shame in being beaten by a team boasting such talents.
The Sunderland manager said: "He's a very, very strong player. He's been here for about four years and he's improving. I think he is a real handful. He can play in midfield and up front. He's what I would call a proper player."
The extent of Sunderland's job was outlined before kick-off, when Peter Reid was introduced to the crowd. Reid was the last manager to lead Sunderland to victory there, back in 1996. He has been left Sunderland for ten years now, no Sunderland manager since has gone close to gaining a league victory at Goodison Park.
Much had been made of Sunderland's unenviable record of having registered just 12 shots on target in a thus-far wretched Premier League season, but there were signs that their impotence was on the turn in the early exchanges at Goodison.
Stephane Sessegnon, whose form this season has left a lot to be desired, was decidedly brighter, and spurned a decent opportunity to hand the Black Cats an early lead on four minutes, latching on to Steven Fletcher's through-ball and scuffing a right-footed shot against the feet of Tim Howard.
Four minutes later, Sunderland chalked up another shot on target when Sessegnon and Fletcher reversed roles, with the Scot running on to the Benin international's slide rule pass. Fletcher's shot limped agonisingly wide of the far post.
Everton were strong on the break, with Kevin Mirallas leading the early chances, firstly with a shot blocked by James McClean on 15 minutes, then supplying Steven Pienaar with a pass from which the South African forced a strong save by Mignolet.
Mignolet was on form again after the half-hour mark - by which time Mirallas had limped off with a hamstring problem - when he denied Pienaar again, while Jelavic scooped a shot over the bar from Leighton Baines' cutback.
At the other end, Johnson showed his quality with a sublime touch into the path of Colback, who adjusted his body only to release a tame shot into the hands of Howard.
Phil Neville brought a decent parry out of Mignolet on 42 minutes, but, in the final kick of the half, Sunderland opened the scoring - and in some style.
Johnson's run was perfect from Gardner's lofted pass, and the former Manchester City man's volley beat the onrushing Howard.
After the interval, Everton inevitably pushed on, laying siege to Sunderland's goal and giving the visitors no time on the ball whatsoever.
Centre-half John Heitinga looked the most likely to restore parity with a shot and two goalbound headers in the space of six minutes.
As time wore on though, Sunderland looked comfortable, but sloppy marking at the back gave the Toffees a route back into the game.
Leon Osman, who had been quietly effective throughout, played a simple pass to the unmarked Fellaini, and the Belgian was afforded time to turn, take a touch and rifle a neat shot into the bottom corner.
Minutes later, the game was turned on its head, with Fellaini at the centre once more. Osman found Fellaini, who backheeled superbly through John O'Shea's legs, leaving a clear path for Jelavic to stroke home past Mignolet.
There was enough time for Sunderland to pour forward in search of the equaliser, but Cuellar's shot was unwittingly blocked by Gardner, who could not get out of the way in time.
O'Neill was left to rue those squandered early chances. "Had we taken one of our earlier chances I think you would have seen a different result. We should have won the game and we didn't," he said.
"They were clear-cut chances and I don't think Everton could have complained if they had been 2-0 down at half-time. But we'll turn it.
"Everton feel they've got the bit between their teeth at the moment.
They feel as if the Champions League is there for them. Regardless of how they play, they press on.
"I knew that we would be under pressure in the second half but it was the fact that we still looked very, very dangerous on the break.
"If you were speaking to me with 14 minutes left, nothing is ever certain in this game but when we looked as if we'd weathered the storm and taken everything Everton had thrown at us reasonably comfortably as well, it's a bitter blow."
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