No matter how much was on the line for Everton coming into the weekend, a date with Sunderland was always going to be a buzzsaw fixture.
The Toffees entered the match with long-shot hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, four points back of 4th place Chelsea, who held a game in hand. David Moyes’ notoriously thin side had been nursed back to health for the first time since the beginning of the season and after a robust mid-week performance in the 1-1 draw at Arsenal, it felt like few teams could stand in their way.
One of those teams, however, was Sunderland.
In 16th place and just three points clear of relegation-bound Wigan, the Wearsiders were battling for their Premier League lives. The Black Cats entered the match full of belief after last weekend’s stunning 3-0 victory over Newcastle. The derby win secured manager Paulo Di Canio’s cult-status at the club and made concern over his political affiliations a mere footnote.
The fiery Italian put out a side that was organized, energetic and full of belief. Factor in the match being venued under the reverberating rafters of the Stadium of Light, and Sunderland were a team not to be crossed. To their credit, Everton played decently well but it didn’t matter – the Black Cats’ determination could not be matched and they fully deserved the three points.
The win came courtesy of a Stephane Sessegnon gem just before halftime. After Leighton Baines gave the ball away at midfield, Sessegnon took four dribbles and fired a hovering shot from 18 yards out to beat Tim Howard to his far post. The Benin international’s seventh goal of the campaign was all Sunderland needed to secure the three points, easing their relegation fears and setting off celebrations throughout Wearside.
For Everton, the dropped points could have massive ramifications. For starters, the loss prompted Moyes to admit that his side has almost no chance of Champions League qualification. “We probably didn’t deserve to lose the game but we didn’t play well enough to win it. I don’t think now we can make the Champions League,” the manager said.
But even more significantly, the loss could seal the departure of both Moyes and Marouane Fellaini during the summer transfer window. This winter Moyes refused to re-sign his contract at Goodison Park – set to expire this summer – fueling speculation that the 11 year veteran on Merseyside may leave the club in search of greener pastures. Manchester City, Chelsea and Schalke have been named as possible destinations and though Everton chairman Bill Kenwright could convince Moyes to stay by providing him with the finances he needs to compete, majority opinion says the notoriously frugal owner is unlikely to do so.
Fellaini’s road out of Everton is even more clear cut. Enjoying a dominant season (11 goals, 5 assists in 27 appearances), the 25 year old has been heavily linked to Chelsea and, more recently, Russian outfits Anzhi Makhachkala and Zenit St. Petersburg. The Belgian has made clear his intent to play Champions League football and although his current deal at Everton isn’t set to expire until 2016, a $35m (£23m) escape clause is viewed as a fair market trigger for big clubs to pull.
In the meantime Everton will set its sites on competing with 5th place Tottenham in a spot for the Europa League. To do so the Toffees will need to take maximum points from their four remaining fixtures against Fulham (H), Liverpool (A), West Ham (H) and Chelsea (A).