Everton only needed to win or draw each of their last two matches at Goodison Park this year to go all of 2013 unbeaten at home. Their match against Southampton on Sunday was always going to be difficult to navigate, but today the Blues, in fourth place, hosted last-place Sunderland in what was expected to be a gimme. It wasn't.
Twenty-three minutes into the match, Everton won a goal kick, and American goalkeeper Tim Howard elected to play a short pass to Leon Osman, open just outside of Everton's 18-yard box. But Howard's pass was just a touch behind the midfielder, and then Osman tripped over the ball, leaving Sunderland player Ki Sung-yueng an open path and an eternity to score.
Ki dribbled at Howard, faked a shot, and dragged the ball past the keeper. Howard had no choice but to go to ground and bring Ki down with him. Howard knew he was off before he even got up, and two minutes later, Ki finished the chance at the penalty spot to put Sunderland up, 1-0.
Sunderland are a really bad team, and Everton were still able to dominate a man down. But they couldn't break through, and after 90 minutes, Sunderland escaped with three points.
Everton dropped to fifth in the table; out of a Champions League spot for the time being, but still much higher than anyone expected at the start of the season. It was only Everton's second loss of the season (the first was to Manchester City away, which is forgivable), and their first Premier League home loss since Chelsea beat them 2-1 361 days ago. Everton have already beaten Chelsea and defending champions Manchester United, and earned draws against league leaders Arsenal and second-place Liverpool. The've amassed these results how they always have: by playing tight and disciplined in the back and through the midfield, cutting out chances, frustrating opponents, and ultimately turning losses into draws and draws into improbable wins.
It's what they did in past years under manager David Moyes, but when Moyes went to United this summer, taking Everton star Marouane Fellaini, it was thought that Everton would finally regress and become the mid-table side they seem every year on paper to be. But this team is much better, much more talented, than it has been in years past. Howard, a 10-year Premier League veteran, is still great, and exceptional at organizing the defense. Center back Sylvain Distin is a rock, and partner Phil Jagielka is playing better than he has in years. When healthy, Leighton Baines is the best left back in the league, as proficient in the back as he is dangerous from wide areas or over a dead ball, and right back Seamus Coleman has the makings of a superstar. But Everton's real improvement has come from shrewd, temporary moves from new manager Roberto Martinez, as well as an injection of youth.
Midfielder Gareth Barry arrived on loan from Manchester City to shore up the midfield, and 19-year-old Gerard Deulofeu has proven himself as a special player, a winger who can come off the bench to score goals. But the most important addition has been 20-year-old forward Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea.
This is Lukaku's second season in a row on loan. He spent last year at West Brom, and this year, new Chelsea manager José Mourinho decided the young Belgian would spend the season elsewhere. This was probably one of the worst decisions of this half of the season, because while Chelsea are struggling for goals from their forwards, Lukaku has scored eight goals and added three assists so far this year. And playing in behind him is Ross Barkley, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder who looks like the best prospect England has to offer now.
Everton have improbably stitched together a team capable of challenging the English giants for a Champions League spot. Points and cool bragging rights aside, this loss to Sunderland isn't too significant. Everton have still only lost two matches this season, less than any other team in the league. More telling, perhaps, is that they've also drawn seven, more than anyone else. With their run at a full year unbeaten dashed, Everton must look forward to January, when they can sign more quality to improve for a title run that could still land them in the top four. They must also plan for June, when their influential loans return to their respective clubs. Everton have an option to buy the 32-year-old Barry, and there are reports that Deulofeu could hang around for another season. But Mourinho has already said he'd recall Lukaku at the end of the season. Without reinforcements and addition of further quality, this nearly-perfect past year will be all but forgotten.