Beating one of the top flight’s usual top four – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – is enough to draw more attention towards one of the Premier League’s also-rans, a category in which both Everton and Sunderland sit. Taking three points from one of that quartet – quickly becoming a quintet given Manchester City’s ambition and finance – is often heralded as a sign of the victorious side’s potential or the loser’s decline, or an example of the unpredictability of the division – and it may be all three – but it is impossible to tell from one result. The key is how that result is followed up – is the momentum maintained or brought to a shuddering holt?
Too often Everton have failed to capitalise on good results against more illustrious foes by slipping to embarrassing – and embarrassingly predictable – defeats or disappointing results soon after. The 1-0 victory over Manchester United in April 2005, a result that brought Champions League qualification within touching distance, was followed a few weeks later by a 7-0 hammering by Arsenal, after Champions League qualification had been assured but still unacceptable and a portent of the disappointment to come in Europe’s top competition. In January 2006 a feisty 1-0 victory over Arsenal was followed by a 1-1 FA Cup draw with Chelsea, hinting at an improvement in form that may have brought European football to Goodison Park. Instead, Everton lost the replay at Stamford Bridge 4-1 and won just four more games all season. Even in this campaign, positive results against both Manchester United and Liverpool have been followed respectively by a dire defeat to Newcastle United and one win from the next five games, a run the Blues are seeking to arrest tonight.
Sunderland come into the game unbeaten in three, since their 5-1 mauling against Newcastle, riding the crest of a wave familiar to David Moyes’ side. The Black Cats’ success over Chelsea last Sunday – and Everton’s defeat to Arsenal on the same day – put tonight’s visitors in a position they are not thoroughly accustomed too. As the stated model for numerous ambitious Premier League teams, Everton now find themselves in the unfamiliar role of Goliath to Sunderland’s David – not that the gap between the two is such, if one even exists, but Everton have been to the European Promised Land Sunderland are striving to reach, and knocking off Everton would be another feather in their cap. If the Mackems do dispose of Everton it could be a sign Steve Bruce’s side can challenge at the right end of the table, if not this season then next. Should Everton win out Sunderland’s upward surge will be over before it has really begun and Everton’s can resume. It may not be winner takes all between these two evenly-matched teams but victory tonight could be the catalyst for greater things.