There have been many times under David Moyes's decade-long tenure where the occasion of a crucial game under the floodlights has brought out the spirit, determination and drive from his team and delivered a memorable victory to stir the Blue blood of a devoted following still waiting for a trophy after 17 barren years.
Rarely, though — perhaps never before — has a Moyes team gone away from home in such important circumstances and so devastatingly stifled a team on their own ground as Everton did tonight at the Stadium of Light.
With the tie switching to Wearside after the draw at Goodison 10 days' ago, the pendulum was supposed to have swung in Sunderland's favour, particularly as only Arsenal had come to this ground and won since Martin ONeill took over the Black Cats in December. But the juggernaut into which the Blues transformed at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday like something out of a Michael Bay film to shut down Swansea's much-vaunted passing game rolled into the northeast and simply brushed their hosts aside. They won 2-0 to set up an all-Mersey semi final clash at Wembley but in truth the margin of victory could have been much greater.
Sunderland had come flying out of the traps in the original tie with a statement of intent and scored early and it was clear from the first whistle that Moyes had instructed his charges to do the same this time around. Though they ceded possession a bit cheaply at times in the early going — Darron Gibson bookended an otherwise solid display with some pretty awful passing — and put themselves under unnecessary pressure by conceding free kicks and corners in the first quarter of the match, the Blues nonetheless retained the upper hand in terms of forward momentum throughout the first half.
After Tim Cahill had finished a nice spell of early pressure with a shot from the angle that Simon Mignolet, well positioned, gathered comfortably and then seen the Belgian 'keeper deny him from point-blank range with a header from a Magaye Gueye-Gibson short-corner routine, it didn't look like Everton were going to get the goal that their barn-storming start deserved.
Their reward did arrive through with 23 minutes on the clock. Osman appeared to be fouled in the centre circle but the ball broke to Fellaini who surged forward down the left channel before laying it off to Gueye.
The French forward cut a low cross into the centre of Sunderland's area and there was Jelavic to side-foot crisply between the goalkeeper and the near post. The Croatian striker showed against Tottenham that he is a natural finisher and this controlled strike bore the hallmarks of a player with an instinctive touch in front of goal... even if he would later miss a sitter to put the tie well beyond the home side's reach.
Martin O'Neill's men were understandably stung into action and their two best chances thus far almost had them back in the tie. First Larsson found himself onside when he tried to latch onto a dangerous ball over the top of the Everton defence but he couldn't get contact on it to prod the ball past or over the advancing Tim Howard.
And in the 32nd minute, Niclas Bendtner was picked out by Larsson's cross from the Sunderland left via Sylvain Distin's out-stretched leg but an excellent block by Leighton Baines prevented the Dane's shot from threatening the Blues' goal.
Gibson then completely switched off as the ball was played through to Sebastian Sessegnon and picked up a booking for pulling the Benin international down but, in an incident that summed up his evening, Larsson whipped his free kick wide of the near post without forcing Howard into a save.
It was Everton who finished the half the stronger and, in a foreshadowing of what was to come in the second half, Jelavic twice found himself in behind the Sunderland defence but on the first occasion his attempt to play in Cahill hit the first defender and on the second he was unfairly penalised by referee Lee Probert for a challenge on Sotirios Kyrgiakos.
Seemingly instructed by Moyes to go for the jugular in the second half, the Blues came out of the break on the front foot, Leon Osman flashing a stunning volley inches wide of the far post from a corner and Gueye teeing up Gibson on the edge of the box but his side-footer was blocked by a defender.
A sliced shot by Gueye after a Phil Neville throw had been allowed to bounced as far as Mignolet's fist and an ambitious volley by Jelavic followed before the second, killer goal came with the second period 12 minutes old. O'Neill will have lost count how many times his rattled players gave the ball away in the course of the game and when Fellaini pounced on another misplaced ball the home defence was critically exposed as the Belgian midfielder drove at its heart once more.
His ball to Jelavic was a touch too heavy, forcing the Croatian wide but his sot was goalbound nonetheless before it took a crucial deflection off Mignolet that would have taken the ball wide of the far post. Substitute David Vaughan wasn't to know, though, and as he went to clear the danger with his left foot, the ball cannoned off his right and into the empty net to put Everton firmly in the driver's seat.
The way they were playing, the Black Cats needed something fast by way of a response and they almost got it three minutes later when Sessegnon popped up with an out-stretched leg at the back post after Howard had flapped ineffectively at a corner but the ball ricocheted off the angle of crossbar and post and out to safety.
With Everton putting their hosts under relentless pressure and forcing error after error, the chances kept coming for the Blues and their 6,000 raucous fans at the other end. And when Cahill squared the ball perfectly across the Sunderland box just past the hour, he served Wembley certainty on a platter for Jelavic. The striker took one touch to open up the angle to sweep it inside the far corner but, incredibly, he placed his effort the wrong side of the upright.
Five minutes later, Baines' cut-back found Jelavic again but Mignolet was equal to his left-foot shot before the Croatian turned provider for Gueye but he smashed his shot just over the bar. Baines had a fair shout for a penalty waved away and Jelavic was denied trying to walk the ball in as Moyes's boys tried to put the icing on the cake.
With increasing dismay cascading from the home stands, Sunderland's frustration eventually boiled over with 15 minutes to go after a collision between Neville and Lee Cattermole sparked handbags between a clutch of players and Jelavic and Phil Bardsley were booked for taking things too far. And when Larsson exacted some retribution on Neville a minute later, he too ended up in the book as the Black Cats threatened to lose their composure altogether.
The home side had effectively been a beaten side since the second goal went in but while they tried in the closing stages to find some way back into the tie, they were consistently repelled by a Blue wall marshalled by the formidable John Heitinga and bolstered by the additions of Phil Jagielka and Tony Hibbert late on. Just once, three minutes into injury time, did that resistance fall away when a defence-splitting ball put Frazier Campbell clean through in a one-on-one with Howard but with Distin breathing down his neck, the forward stumbled at the crucial moment and the 'keeper smothered the chance.
And that was game over. With a quite magnificent performance, Everton had delivered an emphatic statement of intent with revenge under the Wembley arch as the next goal in this season's FA Cup. The core of his team has now played six games in 17 days but, the last few minutes aside, you'd never have known it, such was the energy and drive with which they played Sunderland into submission.
With no Steven Pienaar, Royston Drenthe or Seamus Coleman, this was a starting line-up that promised a game of hustle, bustle, brawn and playing the percentages but, with Fellaini in full Belgian Beast mode and Gueye more than doing his part on the left flank, the they carved Sunderland open on floor just as much as they battered them in the air.
Quite where this team has been for most of this season is anyone's guess. Granted Sunderland had a hand in their own downfall with a sorry performance, but if Everton play like this for the rest of the competition, they will have every chance of booking two dates at Wembley. Walk tall, Blues. The boys did us proud!
Player Ratings: Howard 7, Neville 8, Heitinga 8, Distin 8, Baines 8, Gibson 7, Fellaini 9, Osman 8, Gueye 8 (Jagielka 7), Cahill 8 (Hibbert -), Jelavic 9* (Stracqualursi -)
So here we are... A sixth match in 17 days sees Everton travel to the northeast for their biggest game of the season thus far, a do-or-die cup quarter final replay against Sunderland.
With the impressive victory at Swansea and Liverpool's home defeat to Wigan at the weekend, European qualification via 7th place is still in play for the Blues, so this isn't quite make-or-break for the season. But David Moyes has quite clearly thrown his chips all-in in a bid for the FA Cup and a first trophy in 10 years, so the draw in the original tie back at Goodison would no doubt have been enormously frustrating for him.
A second chance to book a place at Wembley and set up an all-Merseyside semi-final is on offer then with Martin O'Neill's Black Cats standing in the way. Moyes's record against Sunderland is excellent but he has bested O'Neill just once, coincidentally enough in the FA Cup three years ago when the Blues beat Aston Villa in the Fifth Round on their way to the Final.
With the tie switching to the Stadium of Light, the advantage has clearly swung in Sunderland's favour, not least because they have been so impressive on home turf since O'Neill succeeded Steve Bruce earlier this season. Only Arsenal have come away from there with a win since he took over at the beginning of December, although Everton did manage a 1-1 draw when the two sides met on Boxing Day.
Sunderland will also be buouyed by the return of Sebastian Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole, both of whom missed the original game 10 days' ago through suspension. Sessegnon has rightly been highlighted as the Black Cats' chief danger man — the Benin international has been in superb form this season and Moyes will no doubt be crafting a plan to nullify that threat.
The Blues will, of course, be without their most creative outlet once again, with the cup-tied Steven Pienaar forced to sit out again. That will force Moyes into another change on the left flank where Royston Drenthe, Magaye Gueye and Victor Anichebe have been deployed in recent games.
Drenthe will not be available, though, after Moyes apparently allowed him to return to Holland on compassionate leave, and with Seamus Coleman also highly doubtful after suffering a recurrence of his thigh muscle injury, the Blues will be worryingly short of pace and creativity down the flanks.
With Darron Gibson back in midfield alongside Marouane Fellaini, Leon Osman is almost certain to play on one of the flanks while Gueye or Anichebe could well get the nod on the other. Up front, Tim Cahill is expected to play behind Nikica Jelavic, with Denis Stracqualursi on the bench.
In defence, it remains to be seen whether Moyes opts for the greater speed of Tony Hibbert or the experience and influence of Phil Neville, while it would probably be prudent to reinstate John Heitinga in the centre even given Phil Jagielka's superb display at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday.
Given the shortage of flair in the side, this is unlikely to be a free-flowing display of passing football like that with which Everton put Swansea to the sword. Indeed, it could be one that is long on industry, brawn and a reliance on winning the second ball and set-pieces but no one will care if the Blues can get the job done and book passage to the semi finals.
Come. On. You. Blues!
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|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
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|4 the Game||Report|
|Bridge (63' Campbell)|
|Kyrgiakos (53' Vaughan)|
|Subs not used|
|Cahill (90' Hibbert)|
|Subs not used|
|Drenthe (compassionate leave)|
|Forshaw (loan - injured)|
|Cup Replay Scores|
EL Group Draw: 29 Aug