16 March ~ I still can't work out if I'm flattered or perplexed by David Moyes resting Everton players in mid-week for today's FA Cup quarter-final. No one ever fields a weakened team in preparation for Sunderland, let alone in a local derby. But, under Martin O'Neill, Sunderland are made of sterner stuff. If you had suggested to any Black Cats fan in early December that the club would be eighth in the league and still in the Cup in March, only the most outlandish optimist would have believed you. In any normal season any one of Peterborough, Middlesbrough or Arsenal would have been more than enough to end our Cup hopes for another year. Yet tomorrow we take on Everton, unfortunately for us, at Goodison Park.
Moyes clearly doesn't hold much stock in history. Sunderland have a dreadful record at Everton – in their last five games there they have won one point and conceded 16 goals. The last time we beat today's opponents was at the Stadium of Light in 2001, when Paul Gascoigne was wobbling around Everton's midfield and, according to the Telegraph, Trevor Phillips was playing up front for the hosts.
So, to many Sunderland supporters, Everton are dreaded opposition. They also have Tim Cahill, who has scored seven times against us since 2004, including the match-winner in the Cup semi-final that year for Millwall, the last time Sunderland made any impression on this tournament.
Everton have been impressive at home this season, beating Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City at Goodison in recent games. This promises to be a competitive, hard-fought and close match between two teams equal on Premier League points. While I would be more confident if this game was being played in Sunderland, I fear that at home Everton will have enough for a narrow victory.
Any physical advantage Sunderland might have gained from Everton's midweek match has been largely nullified by Moyes's contentious tinkering. But psychologically, for both players and fans, this gamble could work in Sunderland's favour.
Everton's support may well turn edgy if it begins to appear that losing at Anfield was all in vain. Sunderland now look capable of defending a lead, mostly due to a growing understanding between Michael Turner and John O'Shea at centre-back. If the visitors score first, Everton's players and fans could well be frustrated. Other than that, perhaps Sunderland's best chance of winning this tie is by aiming for a home replay, especially with top-scorer Stéphane Sessègnon banned today.
This is a huge game for both clubs. With both Manchester clubs eliminated, the draw is more open than usual. While many continue to fret over the devaluation of the Cup, to most people in football it still remains a vastly important institution. Moyes controversially proved that earlier this week. It is about time Sunderland won at Goodison Park and now is a perfect time to start doing it. Ed Upright