A controversial penalty award by referee Howard Webb allowed Everton to escape this Boxing Day clash with a point, although with a good deal more composure, Sylvain Distin could have won it for the Blues with the last kick of the game.
In blustery conditions in the northeast, an Everton side stripped of midfield anchor Marouane Fellaini by injury had made a lively start but found themselves a goal down before half an hour had elapsed. They were struggling to regain the upper hand in a physical and sometimes testy encounter when Leon Osman mis-kicked under pressure from a clutch of defenders in the area and tumbled to the turf, prompting Mr Webb to point to the spot after a moment's deliberation.
Seemingly unable to keep his former Talisman out of the side for more than one game, David Moyes had restored the struggling Tim Cahill to the starting XI behind Louis Saha and moved John Heitinga into midfield to replace Fellaini. With Phil Neville for company it made for a somewhat turgid central midfield partnership but the manager did, at least, deploy Royston Drenthe on the left to provide some attacking flair.
It was down the right that the Blues' first chance came, though, from somewhat fortuitous circumstances. Sunderland had set out their stall to harry and close the visitiors down from the first whistle and when Phil Jagielka found himself hemmed in by his own touchline, his boot down the touchline was surely intended more as a clearance than a perfect ball over the top. It released Cahill down the right channel, though, behind the home defence but the angle favoured Westwood in the Sunderland goal and the 'keeper parried his shot away.
Nice footwork by Drenthe put Baines in on the overlap on the other flank eight minutes later but his low cross was put behind by Titus Bramble and Cahill steered a header from the resulting corner well wide. A minute later, a corner from the other side handed Saha with his best chance of the game but he made an inexplicable mess of his back-post header and the ball bounced wide again of Westwood's right-hand post.
Heavy criticism of Everton's goal-drought-striken forwards should have been tempered in recent weeks by the glaring lack of service but here they were getting chances but were not making the most of them. And after Tony Hibbert had denied Nicklas Bendtner by closing him down and then blocking his eventual shot, the Blues' profligacy was punished when the hosts took the lead in the 25th minute.
Bendtner fed the impressive Sebastian Sessegnon who jinked into the area, drew Hibbert and laid it off to Colback whose low shot looped up off Distin's despairing lunge and over Tim Howard to hand Sunderland a lead they didn't deserve on the balance of play. It was a lead they would take into half time despite an Osman half-volley that drifted over and a fierce Drenthe drive that whistled a yard wide from 20-odd yards via Westwood's fingertips.
The second half was less than three minutes old when Bendtner and the lively Sessegnon combined again, the Dutch forward's unorthodox through-ball releasing the Benin international but Howard denied him.
Proceedings were level three minutes after that, though, when Webb's dubious decision gave Baines the opportunity from the penalty spot and he made no mistake with an excellent penalty kick that he drove high into the right-hand corner of the goal past Westwood's simian antics on the goalline designed, no doubt, to put the England international off.
The goal did not, however, reignite the Blues' momentum from earlier in the first half and Saha almost put through his own net off a corner but, thankfully, his header bulleted above the crossbar as Martin O'Neill's improving Sunderland threatened to retake the lead.
Everton, for their part, were being frustrated by Sunderland who were giving them almost no time on the ball and passes to Blue shirts were all-too often underhit allowing a red and white shirt to nip in and kill an attack. Cahill was having another frustrating afternoon winning very little in the air and Saha's insistence on over-elaborating rather than choosing the simple ball didn't help matters.
The change that the Blues' performance needed didn't arrive until the 75th minute when Drenthe was withdrawn in favour of Magaye Gueye and Apostolos Vellios was given just six minutes after replacing Saha in which to win the game. James McFadden also came on for a late cameo — questionable given the fact that Ross Barkley was again forced to look on from the bench — but he wasted the one chance to put in a telling ball with slow thinking that allowed him to be dispossessed wide on the right in the closing stages.
Either side could have won it at the death, though. First Distin almost turned the ball past Howard as he stretched to intercept Sessegnon's wicked cross and, then the French defender found himself with the Sunderland goal gaping as Baines's 93rd-minute cross bounced across the box in the swirling wind but he snatched as the chance with his weaker right foot and skied it over the bar.
All in all, a point at Sunderland is a decent result but, again, the overall performance was predictable and disappointing. The reintroduction of Cahill, while understandable in the context of Moyes's conservative away-game strategy, didn't really work and Saha's display, unfortunately, strengthened the case for the need for new striking options in the New Year. And the sooner Phil Neville can be replaced in central midfield the better.
Next up, a trickier looking trip to West Bromwich Albion who held Manchester City to a 0-0 draw. Expect more of the same from an Everton side in survival mode, at least until Landon Donovan can add some more dynamism to a pedestrian team.
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|2011-12 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
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|4 the Game||Report|
|Bardsley (46' Gardner)|
|Barmble (21' Colback)|
|Vaughan (81' McClean)|
|Subs not used|
|Drenthe (75' Gueye)|
|Cahill (87' McFadden)|
|Saha (84' Vellios)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|West Brom||0-0||Man City|
EL Group Draw: 29 Aug