Sunderland were forced to settle for a point against Everton on Boxing day inside a windy Stadium of Light thanks to a controversial penalty decision after Leon Osman’s second half tumble.
Jack Colback opened the scoring after 26 minutes putting Martin O’Neill’s men on their way to ending an Everton hoodoo which has seen Sunderland fail to beat the Toffee’s since 2001.
But hope of ending that record was halted six minutes into the second half when Osman dribbled his way into the Sunderland box falling to ground under pressure from Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown.
Referee Howard Webb took his time to make the decision before blowing his whistle allowing Leighton Baines the chance to convert from the spot following appeals from the 1,500 or so Everton fans behind the goal.
There appeared to be no contact from anyone in red and white, and replays showed Osman kicked the floor instead of the ball before hitting the ground. A very poor decision by Webb leaving Sunderland players and fans aggrieved.
Baines smashed the ball home to level the game.
Both sides then huffed and puffed creating half chances. Louis Saha almost headed into his own net, whilst Sylvain Distin could have snatched an Everton winner with the last kick of what was an evenly contested game.
Sunderland went into the game looking to move up to 11th place level with opponents Everton after a last gasp win at Queen’s Park Rangers midweek.
The Merseysider’s were themselves looking to take points after beating Swansea in their last game to boost prospects coming into Boxing day’s game.
In front of a buzzing crowd of 43,619 the game started with festive spirit in the stands. But it was the Sunderland defence who were giving out the Christmas presents- first bogeyman Tim Cahill almost improved on his impressive scoring record against us with seven minutes played.
Tony Hibbert hooked a long ball down the wing putting Cahill one on one with Keiron Westwood. The Australian shot from a tight angle to see his effort parried away by Westwood.
In a poor opening 20 minutes from Sunderland, Cahill missed a guilt edged chance when his free header went wide from a dangerous Baines corner with 14 minutes played.
Then just two minutes later Saha was next to miss another goal gaping opportunity as he also headed wide with no Sunderland defender in sight- the standard of defending which had looked to have been a thing of the best since O’Neill’s arrival.
Getting the ball into the feet of Stephane Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner allowed Sunderland to get into the game as Bali International Sessegnon began to work his magic weaving in and out of blue shirts.
Titus Bramble’s game was ended after 21 minutes as he left the pitch through injury being replaced by Jack Colback forcing a defensive shuffle.
Colback could not have wished for a better introduction as neat interplay between Dane Bendtner and Sessegnon put the substitute in on goal with practically his first touch and his shot was deflected in by Sylvain Distin despite the defender’s desperate lunge.
Colback’s delight with his first career goal in red and white was evident as he was held in the air by team mates to celebrate putting his side in front.
The goal changed the balance of play and Everton’s early dominance deserted them to swing in Sunderland’s favour as we saw out the half in strong fashion.
Phil Bardsley failed to appear for the second half through injury leading to further disruption in defence. Craig Gardner was brought on to play in an unfamiliar right-back role with John O’Shea moving into the middle alongside Brown with Keiron Richardson at left-back.
Sunderland started the second half well.
Bendtner’s superb back heeled skill went through the legs of the Everton defence leaving Sessegnon chasing the through ball but Tim Howard claimed it with a brave dive and catch.
Then came the moment of controversy, in the 51st minute Leon Osman made a dribbling run into the Sunderland area with Cattermole and Brown chasing. Osman’s legs flew up into the air as he hit the ground from what appeared to be minimal if not any contact at all.
Referee Webb seemed to dwell on the decision before awarding the spot kick following loud appeals from the Toffee’s away following. Leighton Baines stepped up to hammer the ball into Westwood’s top left corner leading to a chorus of boos around the Stadium.
Replays showed no contact at all from any Sunderland player as Osman clearly kicked the floor causing him to tumble- a hard slice of bad luck for Sunderland as the players continued to confront Webb after the penalty had been scored.
But the decision spurred Sunderland’s players on as we continued to get the ball and play despite being against the odds with defensive troubles and a refereeing nightmare.
Chances throughout the second half were few and far between.
Keeper’ Howard fumbled a save almost allowing Sessegnon to capitalise but he re-gathered the ball into his safety and Richardson fizzed in a corner which had to be tipped over the bar.
In a hard fought and evenly contested half by both teams, Everton appealed for a second penalty when Royston Drenthe tangled with Craig Gardner on the edge of the penalty area but this time no penalty was awarded.
James Mclean was again given a run out by manager O’Neill and he had an immediate impact injecting fresh pace into the game- his ability to beat a man looks very promising.
With three minutes of injury time added on Sunderland pushed for a winner.
But it was Everton who came closest to snatching all three points as a ball into the Sunderland box found Distin at the back post, he shanked his shot over the bar under oncoming pressure spurning the last chance of what was a good but inevitably disappointing game in the end for Sunderland.
The draw makes it seven points from 12 under O’Neill as things start to look increasingly better. With the January transfer window approaching, hopefully two or three new faces could salvage a top 10 finish from a disastrous start to the season.
39,619. (Everton around 1,500-2000)
Keep the faith.