IT’S half-time effectively in this fascinating cup clash, and still no clue to its eventual outcome. Perfect.
This is the excitement talked about when the magic of the cup is mentioned – this hanging in the balance, this uncertainty; the tension created by the prospect of reward weighed against the pain of loss.
And how much have Sunderland supporters missed it?
It is eight years since they’ve been this far in the FA Cup, longer still in the League Cup.
Much had been made going into the game of the importance of home advantage, but it was Sunderland who started the crisper of the two sides, Fraizer Campbell winning a second-minute free-kick, and James McClean heading wide Seb Larsson’s ball into the box.
Everton replied instantly with giant midfielder Marouane Fellaini finding Seamus Coleman on the right flank and Leon Osman heading the resulting cross wide at the near post.
Then came the big talking point of the first-half – Royston Drenthe tumbled over the legs of Craig Gardner on the edge of the 18-yard box, but referee Andre Marriner was only yards away and ruled it no foul.
Everton fans and players were incensed and claimed, with perhaps some justification, that they should have had a penalty – although perhaps some justice was done on the day for the outrageous penalty Leon Osman conned out of referee Howard Webb in the Boxing Day league fixture between these two teams.
Sunderland went on to capitalise, taking a 12th-minute lead when Gardner was fouled 30 yards from Everton’s goal, wide on the right.
The home team set themselves ready for another booming Larsson delivery into the danger zone, which meant Jack Colback’s quick-thinking short pass inside to Phil Bardley took them by surprise.
The full-back advanced to just over 20 yards out and unleashed a rocket of a right-foot shot which flashed into the net.
Bardsley’s first goal of the season could hardly have been better timed and he celebrated by sprinting away and sliding on his knees towards Sunderland’s ecstatic hordes.
The Black Cats’ defence frustrated Everton’s efforts to get back into the game – Osman and Fellaini restricted to long-range efforts – but they found a leveller in the 23rd minute through Sunderland bogeyman Tim Cahill.
Just as galling as Cahill’s eighth goal against Sunderland was the fact there was an element of good fortune attached to the equaliser.
Martin O’Neill will have been disappointed Leighton Baines was given too much time and space on the left to cross, disappointed that Nikica Jelavic won the header at the near post and disappointed that it went straight at Cahill who headed it inside the near post.
But the Aussie could have known little about it with the ball travelling to him at such speed and though he did well to cushion his header, there was still a slice of luck that it dropped as fortuitously as it did.
The goal was hard on Sunderland, but it at least boosted the decibel levels further as both sets of fans tried to inspire their teams.
Sunderland had been just about on top up until the equaliser. After that it was Everton’s turn to force the pace.
There was danger from a 35th minute corner – Simon Mignolet punching away Cahill’s near-post header, and Sylvain Distin picking up the loose ball, but slicing wide from just 10 yards out.
It was not backs to the wall stuff for Sunderland – Colback and Gardner made sure of that with tigerish midfield work ensuring Felllaini was never allowed to dominate.
But Everton had the best chance before the break, Drenthe crashing a free-kick off the woodwork.
Sunderland started the second-half well enough – Colback producing the first shot on goal, Larsson almost swinging a corner under Howard’s crossbar – but there was much more of a threat from Cahill’s stinging shot on the run in the 50th minute, which Mignolet parried and Wayne Bridge swept clear.
Everton were making more of the running as the hour came up, Jelavic going close in the 62nd and 68th minutes, but Sunderland held firm.
The Wearsiders began to sit deeper, trying to see the game out, but their plans may have been undone if not for a moment of brilliance from Mignolet in the 87th minute.
Leighton Baines’s corner was met by Jonny Heitinga, whose looping header seemed to head goalward in slow motion.
Mignolet somehow managed to finger-tip the ball away, but only as far as the lurking Jelavic. The Everton man tried to squeeze the ball into the net, but Mignolet was there again to make a superb block.
And that was that, honours even.
The two sides will now do it all again at the Stadium of Light next week, and this time Sunderland will have home advantage and Stephane Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole back.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 8, Bardsley 7, O’SHEA 8, Turner 7, Bridge 5, Larsson 6, Gardner 6, Colback 8, McClean 6, Campbell 5 (Vaughan 73, 5), Bendtner 6. Subs not used: Gordon, Kilgallon, Kyrgiakos, Meyler, Elmohamady, Wickham.
EVERTON: Howard, Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines, Coleman (Gueye 72), Osman, Fellaini, Drenthe (Stracqualursi 84), Cahill, Jelavic. Subs not used: Hahnemann, Hibbert, Jagielka, McFadden, Anichebe.
HIGHLIGHT: Simon Mignolet’s double save at the death was a special moment.
LOWLIGHT: For Sunderland fans it was the sight of Tim Cahill leaping to head another goal against their side.
MAN OF THE MATCH: O’Shea
Goals: Bardsley12, Cahill 23
Bookings: Neville 9, Bendtner 28, Heitinga 30, Distin 67, Turner 69.
Ref: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)