Nightmare after Christmas at Goodison

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

Tim Burton need look no further than Goodison Park should he ever pursue a sequel to ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, as Everton served up a post-Christmas nightmare Thursday in a 1-0 loss to Sunderland. Tim Howard and Leon Osman shared the lead role in this follow-up.

There was an eerie inevitability about this galling Boxing Day encounter; there are few teams with such a chronic tendency for tripping themselves up when heavily favoured. Who could forget the visit of winless-in-20-matches Nottingham Forest in January 1999?

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Unfortunately for the home side, the curse of the unexpected struck again. Everton had various unbeaten sequences to their name heading into this, while bottom-table Sunderland were without an away win since April, yet one moment of madness ensured the Toffees' first home league defeat since December 2012.

Roberto Martinez made one change to the side that edged Swansea, with Osman replacing the match winner from four days ago, Ross Barkley. This minor alteration would play a key role in the outcome.

Osman and Howard served up a first-half sketch that made the Keystone Cops look like CSI. The whole episode was one calamitous decision after another, and all so eminently avoidable. As a result, both shoulder the blame: Osman for squandering possession, Howard for bizarrely opting to pass to a player under obvious pressure.

The red card on Howard did at least give Joel Robles his first taste of league action in royal blue. Although Robles' first action of note was retrieving the ball from the back of the net, the Spanish keeper showed promise for the most part.

Dissecting the sending-off and the penalty that proved so costly, many are sure to question the methods of Martinez and his passing style. Such queries are misguided; this series of errors owed more to the poor decision-making of individuals than the designated approach.

This change in style is exactly what Everton needed -- questioning it now would be knee-jerk in the extreme. Howard was right to pass the ball; he simply chose the wrong option. Osman was justified in seeking possession; he paid the price for a poor touch.

Ultimately, though, out of nowhere, Everton manufactured their downfall from a position of relative control and comfort. This sense of frustration prevailed throughout. The first-half booking picked up by Gareth Barry merely compounded the loss of Howard; both will miss the Southampton match on Sunday through suspension.

Despite forcing the Black Cats' Vito Mannone into a number of impressive saves, this felt rather more like an Everton side going through the motions; the clearest openings came from set pieces, with Sunderland content to snuff out attacks through weight of numbers.

Bryan Oviedo and Seamus Coleman offered plenty of industry on the flanks and Steven Pienaar attempted to conjure openings, but it was a stilted second-half push rather than a sustained siege. The attacks often arrived in erratic waves, lacking shape or purpose, as the lack of game-changing options on the bench became painfully apparent.

Of those who entered the fray, Nikica Jelavic provided a lively cameo. This was in contrast to Romelu Lukaku, who has gone four games without a goal and struggled to impose himself in each. Furthermore, too much time spent in wide areas often left Everton without a focal point in the final third.

Evidently, up against it from the 25th-minute penalty incident onwards, there were at least signs of how far this side has progressed under Martinez. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Toffees still dictated the play and bossed possession (55 percent to 45).

However, this blip may prove costly. Southampton's visit and the trip to Stoke suddenly take on greater importance. Absent Howard and Barry for the former, Everton must show their ability to bounce back and cope without key players on Sunday.

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