SECOND string maybe – but Everton’s fringe players were far from second rate as they humbled Sunderland and gave their manager food for thought ahead of Wembley.
Maybe it was the sight of local boxer Tony Bellew on the pitch at half-time with Duncan Ferguson that sparked Everton’s belated flurry of killer blows, but in the end the Toffees were so rampant that a boxing referee might have stopped the contest.
This was the perfect preparation for an all-Merseyside FA Cup semi-final tussle, with the Blues showing they’re in prize fighting shape.
Certainly, if they can translate their attacking form from the second half against the Black Cats to straight after the whistle on Saturday, they can hope for reward.
At first it seemed like a contest destined to be filed under forgettable with a curious pre-season pace, and zero probing from Martin O’Neill’s men who could have risen above Everton in the Premier League with a victory.
The visit of Sunderland was the first Easter Monday game at Goodison in a decade, and by half-time most present were wishing it was another 10 years before they had to witness something quite so insipid.
That was more to do with the visitors’ stubborn defensive set-up than any lack of commitment from the Blues though, and they shaded the half even if it was mostly uninspiring stuff.
Moyes was always going to make further changes to the side that drew with Norwich to ensure maximum freshness for the 11 pitched into combat at the weekend, and he got his juggling act just right.
Leighton Baines was denied his 100th consecutive league appearance, provided with due rest despite being the only natural left-back in the senior squad. But Phil Neville has played every outfield position apart from centre-forward for the Blues, and made steady work of the role. Sylvain Distin was also rested, perhaps hinting that his place against Liverpool is cemented, and John Heitinga partnered Phil Jagielka in central defence.
In midfield, Marouane Fellaini retained his place and provided the type of imperious performance that he is so adored for in L4, and Leon Osman returned while James McFadden was given a rare start with Tim Cahill resting his legs.
Moyes admitted after Saturday’s game that his new goalscorer Nikica Jelavic perhaps needed a break as he adjusts to the physical rigours of the English game.
So the assassin was allowed to holster his pistol and put his feet up, and Denis Stracqualursi was asked to run the visiting defence ragged.
Maybe it was befitting the calm before the storm feeling of the whole affair that things were so subdued in the first half.
Only Lee Cattermole’s nasty challenge on Steven Pienaar threatened to provide a talking point, although McFadden wasted the resulting free-kick from just outside the area.
But Gueye was intent on underlining his suitability for a place at Wembley from the start, and he neatly cut inside the area on half an hour and pulled the ball back to Pienaar who volleyed over.
That sparked Everton into life, and Fellaini went close with a venomous effort from outside the area a few moments later.
In a rare moment of intent, James McClean burst through for the visitors and Tim Howard slipped, but the Irish winger had already been ruled offside. Goodison breathed a sigh of relief.
The soaking surface wasn’t helping matters, but Everton almost took the lead again after a neat move which saw the ball drop for Fellaini near the penalty spot, yet he could only sweep it past the post.
Belatedly the game was roused. Phil Bardsley went raiding at the Gwladys Street End, and Stephane Sessengnon’s first-time overhead kick was not too far wide of the target.
Everton seemed the only side with much real attacking intent, and Gueye fed the overlapping Neville before the break, as the skipper’s cross forced Bardsley to hack behind. In fitting with the half, the corner was a non-event.
Everton mounted a couple of quick attacks after the interval, and got the break their endeavours deserved.
Tony Hibbert did well to win a corner, and although it was cleared, Pienaar headed back across goal for Leon Osman to unleash a fierce volley. Simon Mignolet could only parry the stinger, and Gueye got there first to lash home the rebound and record his first goal for the Blues in timely fashion.
The breakthrough forced a weary-looking Sunderland side into a semblance of adventure, but the hosts were defending resolutely and trying to double their advantage, with Pienaar increasingly influential.
So it proved when the South African reinforced how much he will be missed on Saturday by adding the second. At least substitute Royston Drenthe looked sharp on his re-introduction to the side, and burst down the right to find Gueye who had drifted across. The Frenchman squared for Pienaar, who had time to stop and curl a deft finish beyond the dive of Mignolet.
It got better. Buoyed by his impressive form, Gueye began to relax and show the extent of his ability. He chipped the ball over to Osman, who scored with a carbon copy of Pienaar’s curler.
The visitors were thoroughly deflated, and Victor Anichebe – another one to lay claim to a place on the left flank at Wembley – rubbed salt in their wounds. In rampant mood, Pienaar crossed for the Nigerian international who brought the ball under control and lashed in his shot off the unfortunate Jack Colback.
It was Everton’s biggest win in more than a year, and the perfect sign-off before they bunker down and prepare to try to keep their momentum going all the way until May.
They’ll certainly hope there is something in the omens. The last time Moyes’ men won 4-0 was against Wigan in 2009 – the game before their successful FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United.