No sandstorm, no Storm Doris, just a storming surge into the Sunderland penalty area and a tornado-like finish off his right boot and into the roof of the net by Idrissa Gana Gueye to secure his first goal for Everton. Then thunder struck again in the form of Romelu Lukaku who scored his record-equalling 60th Premier League goal for the Blues and 18th of the season as Ronald Koeman’s side claimed a fifth win in seven Premier League games.
Since the low point against Watford on December 10, 2016, Everton have gone on the rampage. Seven wins, three draws and a solitary defeat in the closing moments of the Merseyside derby have yielded 24 points from a possible 33. The Toffees remain, emphatically, the Premier League’s form team. In 2017, it is 17 points from a possible 21.
Sunderland had won just one of their previous eight league games, drawing two and losing five against a solitary victory over Crystal Palace. But that win, their most recent outing on the road, did feature four goals and a clean sheet for the Black Cats and manager Koeman was taking nothing for granted, naming an unchanged starting line-up and warning his charges pre-game that “we will have a lot of ball possession and it is all about whether we can play at a high tempo, press well and force them to make mistakes, win second balls and create chances to score goals”.
Four corners in the opening five minutes emphasised the assertiveness of Everton’s start and the strength of purpose and penetration almost yielded a goal in the sixth minute when Leighton Baines’s cross from the right and Ademola Lookman’s shot from inside the penalty area spilled out of Jordan Pickford’s hands before the Sunderland goalkeeper regrouped and gathered the ball on the goal line.
Everton continued to press forward. Another corner kick was flicked on by Ramiro Funes Mori and Romelu Lukaku almost managed to stretch his leg far enough at the back post to steer the ball the correct side of the post. Seamus Coleman was proving dangerous down Sunderland’s left-hand side and a challenge by Fabio Borini was necessary to halt the Irishman on the edge of the penalty area. Ross Barkley worked the set-piece short to Lookman who hoisted his shot over the crossbar. But the signs remained good from a home perspective.
Sunderland’s surges into Everton territory were sporadic. Bryan Oviedo fashioned their best opportunity with a shot on his left foot that was goalbound before Barkley managed to get in the way and divert the ball off his body at the expense of a corner. At the other end, Gana attacked the left-hand side of the box and attempted to squeeze a low shot between Pickford and his near post but the keeper saved his effort with his legs, the ball spinning agonisingly wide of the upright for another corner.
Everton broke swiftly again after a Sunderland free-kick was charged down on the edge of the area but Barkley’s low cross from the right just evaded the sliding Lukaku six-yards out and Pickford was able to gather the ball.
Finally, all of the Everton pressure paid dividends. Five minutes before the end of the half, Tom Davies became the architect of the breakthrough move, directing a delightful diagonal pass out to Coleman on the right flank. The Republic of Ireland skipper took the ball in his stride, pulled a low cross back to Gana who was lurking with intent 14 yards out and the midfield dynamo hammered a right-foot piledriver emphatically past Pickford for his first goal in a royal blue shirt. The Senegalese headed straight for the Everton technical area and jumped into the arms of Everton substitute Kevin Mirallas before he was engulfed by his team-mates and the coaching staff.
The Blues went for the jugular and twice went close to adding a second goal in a frantic spell leading up to half-time. Barkley drew another sharp save from Pickford with a fizzing low drive that looked destined for the bottom corner until the Sunderland keeper diverted it for a corner with his fingertips. Then Davies was inches away from another goal of the month contender when he latched onto a Lukaku knockdown on the edge of the area, but his curling right foot shot struck the post with Pickford a helpless bystander.
Sunderland began the second half with purpose and Jermain Defoe had a shot repelled by Ashley Williams and Oviedo dragged another shot wide. A corner kick at the Sir Philip Carter Park End Stand found its way to Billy Jones whose glancing header went wide.
All the while we were reminded of Morgan Schneiderlin’s effortless class in the centre of the pitch, breaking up play and setting the ball rolling for the Toffees. Everton’s control of the game was absolute, yet the nagging desire for a second goal never went away. It almost came off the right boot of Mirallas, who came off the bench to replace Lookman, from a pass threaded through to him by Barkley but the Belgian pulled his effort wide. Enner Valencia replaced Davies and the search for a second goal remained the preoccupation. Sunderland stayed resistant.
Coleman’s deft cross offered an opportunity to Barkley but, on the volley, he lofted his effort well over the bar. Lukaku rifled a shot straight at Pickford before Valencia’s cleverly chipped pass towards the Belgian created another chance for the striker whose powerful effort was well gathered by the under-pressure Sunderland keeper.
Then, all of a sudden, the tables were turned. Adnan Januzaj played in Defoe who managed to twist and turn and fire a thunderous shot against the underside of the Everton crossbar, the ball bouncing onto the goal line and clear before Jones turned the rebound back across the face of goal, forcing Coleman to clear at the back post for a corner. Everton defended the resulting set piece and, just as suddenly, Lukaku was on the break from the halfway line following a through-ball by Mirallas. In a foot race towards goal he managed to outrun and out-muscle Oviedo before squeezing his shot past Pickford. Eight goals in eight games since the turn of the year. What a year for Lukaku.
The Belgian almost set up Valencia for a third goal of the game but the Ecuadorian international’s shot was saved by Pickford, who had a hopeless task for much of the day. Everton were simply not to be denied.