LIVERPOOL // As reconnaissance missions go, this was probably neither especially enjoyable nor particularly informative for the two-strong scouting party from Liverpool.
Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen witnessed Everton's biggest league win since March 2010, confirming David Moyes's men approach the derby with a difference, Saturday's FA Cup semi-final, with the momentum and confidence Liverpool lack.
But if, by beating Sunderland, Everton ensured they will go to Wembley Stadium as Merseyside's top team in the table, by doing so with a much-altered side, they ensured many of their premier players will be fresh for the weekend.
The result was that Kenny Dalglish's two lieutenants spent an afternoon watching several fringe players who are unlikely to grace the national stadium.
One of the scorers, Magaye Gueye, delivered his first Everton goal. Another, Victor Anichebe, carried on his habit of striking as a substitute. Steven Pienaar, an unquestioned first choice who is cup-tied, whipped in the second. Of the quartet, only Leon Osman is the only probable starter on Saturday.
Yet there was no sight of the men Liverpool are likely to identify as the principal threats: Tim Cahill, the derby specialist, Nikica Jelavic, the potent predator, and Leighton Baines, the marauding left-back and set-piece specialist, were not even on the bench.
All, said the assistant manager Steve Round, had slight knocks. "It was a matter of not taking any risks," he said. "They would have played if asked." They were not, and it mattered not.
The understudies extended a fine record. Everton have never lost to the Wearsiders in Moyes's long reign and Round invoked the past as he argued that they are the Wembley underdogs.
"I think Liverpool are favourites," he said. "They have got so many good players. They are such a good football club with their history and tradition but we are a lot closer to them than we were in October."
Technically, they are four points ahead even if Liverpool are one of only two teams to beat Everton in their last 17 games. Then, as now, Moyes rotated, with five changes made yesterday. But, Clarke and Keen may have noted, whatever the personnel, there are some common characteristics to Everton teams. They are organised and industrious, even if a fourth clean sheet in five games reflected on the toothlessness of Sunderland, who started without a specialist striker. The men from the margins share the regulars' resolve.
"We were outmuscled," the Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill conceded. "Everton were physically stronger than us and we were well beaten." It was, though, a game of two halves, the second entertaining and emphatic but the first drab and dull. It was enlivened only by a remarkable overhead kick from Stephane Sessegnon that almost produced a goal-of-the-season contender, two shots in a minute from Pienaar and Marouane Fellaini, even if neither was on target, and a solitary save, Simon Mignolet holding James McFadden's effort.
Thereafter, a tight, tense match became one-sided. McFadden's corner was only cleared as far as Osman on the edge of the box. The midfielder's volley bounced awkwardly in front of Mignolet, who could only parry it. Gueye hammered the rebound beyond him.
The 21-year-old Frenchman also provided the assists for the next two goals. Separated by 101 seconds; first Pienaar and then Osman curled carbon copies of shots in.
"Pienaar has been terrific ever since he came back [on loan from Tottenham]," said Round. "Everton may be his spiritual home and he scored a wonderful goal."
He created a less memorable one. After Pienaar's burst to the goal-line, Anichebe completed the scoring, his shot taking a hefty deflection off Jack Colback but making the replacement Everton's top scorer this season.
"They were great goals from their viewpoint but we looked a bit tired," O'Neill said.
He was without his two premier forwards, the injured pair of Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell, and for a 10-minute spell in the second half, Sunderland fielded eight players who are midfielders by trade.
Three were out of position, all out of sorts but Everton are very much in form.
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