Sunderland 1-1 Everton: Marouane Fellaini emerging as Blues' key man
MAROUANE FELLAINI the footballer has occasionally been overshadowed by Marouane Fellaini the cult figure during his time at Everton.
The big-haired Belgian quickly achieved a hero status of sorts among some fans after making the switch two summers ago, weighing in with some important goals in his first campaign.
But equally he divided opinion, with some labelling him a dilatory enigma and others doubting whether he would ever fit comfortably into Everton's team.
Make no mistake about it now; Fellaini is more than a novelty haircut who scores the odd goal. Much more.
The midfielder has grown with maturity in every game this season after recovering from a virus which hampered his pre-season, and David Moyes is being proved right for investing ÃÂ£15m in the former Standard Liege man's talents.
Playing in the deep role just ahead of the back four, where he excelled for Standard Liege, he has suddenly started taking games by the scruff of the neck.
His performance in the Blues' draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light was his best yet this season. Enough even for his manager to hand out high praise indeed - labelling him one of the best midfielders in the Premier League.
Phil Neville made a welcome return to the squad against Sunderland, albeit on the bench, and like Everton's other returning stars the skipper will know that it won't be Fellaini who will drop out of the team for him.
The Blues survived an early scare against Steve Bruce's men, when Tim Howard punched away a high ball under pressure from Kenwyne Jones and Steed Malbranque, but they soon began to dominate possession.
Leon Osman had the first chance, his swift interplay with Diniyar Bilyaletdinov saw the ball break through a tangle of legs back to him and he steered a delicate chip just onto Marlon Fulop's post.
But while they were enjoying lots of the ball in the first 45 minutes, the Toffees weren't doing much constructive with it.
Their set-piece delivery was particularly poor. Leighton Baines is rightly lauded for the quality of his corners and free kicks, but he was having an off-day with the dead-ball. Still, the Blues somehow won a corner from one aimless free-kick.
Then from an equally poor corner, Bilyaletdinov played in Saha who was hanging on the shoulder of the defender. The Frenchman turned and dragged a low shot narrowly wide, reminding everyone how a half-chance is a chance when it's at his feet.
Then 'King Louis' went close again, this time sliding wide after a through ball on the right from Pienaar.
But Jones can be formidable on his day too, and he provided Sunderland's lead. Atoning for a weak effort earlier, Jones broke down the right after being fed by a Darren Bent header and whipped an exquisite cross into the area. Bent didn't even have to check his lung busting run to head the cross decisively past Howard.
It almost got worse for Everton five minutes later when Lucas Neill had to clear off his own line after some docile defending.
Frustratingly, then Andy Reid was allowed to win a header in the Everton area under zero pressure, the Blues' blushes only spared by Reid's lack of support. Suddenly, Everton were being bombarded and inviting further torment with uncharacteristically nervy defending.
Still, they had plenty of possession and still failed to capitalise on it. Bilyaletdinov summed it up when he turned and fired a cross high and handsome - far away from the increasingly isolated Saha.
Sunderland were not allowing the Blues to settle, pressuring every area of the pitch while looking to counter attack quickly.
But with the ball on the floor Everton still threatened and created chances, moves largely breaking down when long balls were pumped towards Saha's head instead.
It has been six years since the Blues came back to win a league game they were losing at half time, a fact which offered little comfort at this stage.
And just before the break, Baines had to be alert to head an Andy Reid free kick off the line.
But Everton started the second half with more intent, winning an early corner which Fellaini headed just wide. Then, as they continued to make Sunderland seem like the away side, Saha neatly chested a long ball down for Cahill who played a one two which the Frenchman was just unable to take in his stride as Mensah tackled.
Then Saha was nearly in again, this time from a delightful defence splitting pass from Fellaini.
Everton's passing was improving steadily, but then from another in a long line of corners they could suddenly have conceded.
Tony Hibbert was dispossessed while trying to cross in the Sunderland box by George McCartney, and he fed Darren Bent who burst forward at pace.
Had the striker played in Jordan Henderson instead of Bolo Zenden the Blues would surely have been 2-0 down.
Tim Howard then had to be at the top of his game to tip a powerful goal bound header from Da Silva over the bar after a Sunderland free kick.
Despite the scares, the Blues increasingly began to look good value for an equaliser. Osman was replaced by Yakubu, as Moyes opted to go with two up front, and then Pienaar struck a scorching volley wide.
Ever the club captain, Phil Neville prowled the touchline, peppering his warm-up with encouragement for the team and scorching the assistant referee's ears on occasion.
Finally though, the goal came. The Sunderland defence failed to deal with a Tony Hibbert cross, and the ball dropped for Fellaini who smashed it emphatically into the net to send the travelling fans into delirium. The Belgian's roaring celebration was full of passion, proving once and for all he has more settings than 'laid-back'.
Then Everton went close again with a scuffed Tim Cahill strike, before Sunderland almost netted themselves.
In the end a fourth successive draw for the Blues brought a valuable away point, and nudged them up to 14th.
The game hinged on Fellaini's goal and his emerging presence. In their song about him, Everton fans jokingly promise the Belgian he can have his wicked way with their spouses to the tune of Andy William's 'I love you Baby'.
But Fellaini's realisation of his own promise and the growing fire in his belly is no joke. In fact, it really is music to everyone's ears.