SUNDERLAND can take great confidence from their third defeat in a week-and-a-half even though they should have beaten Everton, according to manager Martin O’Neill.
While the Black Cats lost 2-1 at Goodison Park on Saturday, their performance provided a great deal of encouragement.
The first-half showing was arguably their most positive in this season’s Premier League, and got its due reward in added time.
Adam Johnson scored his maiden goal for the club, ending a five-match barren patch for Sunderland players – finally becoming the first apart from Steve Fletcher to net in the league this term.
Johnson’s well-taken goal was no fluke, Sunderland having already carved out good opportunities for Fletcher, Jack Colback and Stéphane Sessègnon. They also defended well, with John O’Shea in excellent form well supported, the odd lapse apart, by Carlos Cuellar. Even David Moyes admitted he was resigned to losing until Marouane Fellaini scored and made a goal in flurry lasting less than three minutes.
“I don’t think Everton could have complained if they had been 2-0 down at half-time,” O’Neill reflected. “But we’ll turn it.
“The players ironically have taken a lot of confidence from it. You wouldn’t know it from the dressing room after the game, but some players have come back to form and that’s important for us.
“We’ve lost a game against what I would consider a very, very strong outfit but we’ll come back.
“Had we taken one of those earlier chances I think you would have seen a different result. We should have won the game; we didn’t.”
Everton are fourth and unbeaten in their last nine home league matches. But until Fellaini’s smart 76th-minute finish, they had done little to suggest that would be the case at the final whistle.
“Everton feel they’ve got the bit between their teeth at the moment,” said O’Neill. “They feel as if the Champions League is there for them. Regardless of how they play, they press on. I knew we would be under pressure in the second half but we still looked very, very dangerous on the break.
“If you were speaking to me with 14 minutes left, nothing is ever certain in this game but we looked as if we’d weathered the storm and taken everything Everton had thrown at us reasonably comfortably as well. It’s a bitter blow.”
The defeat compounds home reverses to Middlesbrough and Aston Villa the previous week. With Reading and Southampton picking up points, Sunderland are now only a win above the relegation zone.
On Sunday they face Fulham, another team with a formidable home record. They may do so without five-goal Fletcher, substituted 69 minutes into the game after one hefty challenge too many.
The worst saw Johnny Heitinga stud him as the pair jumped for the ball. It would a major surprise if Fletcher played in Scotland’s friendly in Luxembourg on Wednesday.
“He is struggling,” O’Neill admitted. “I thought he was terrific for us and he’s had a lot of attention in the game.”
When asked to expand on that, O’Neill instead vented his frustration at Danny Rose’s booking in the fifth added minute.
The on-loan left-back was blocked as he tried to squeeze between two defenders. Everton were given a free-kick, Rose a yellow card.
“I’m loathe to (criticise referees) but how Danny Rose got booked and given a foul against, it beggars belief. You want to see that one back, then ask (referee) Mr Mason.”
Again filling in for hamstring victim Phil Bardsley at right-back, Craig Gardner was also cautioned – for a tackle on Leighton Baines – and misses the trip to Craven Cottage through suspension.
Derry-born winger James McClean chose not to join his team-mates in wearing a poppy on his shirt during Saturday’s game.