Despite disappointment in the cups, Everton have had a very good league season so far and are in excellent form going into the run-in. How do you fancy your chances of getting into those Champions League places?
Royal Blue Mersey: Very slim at the moment. It's not because we're in bad form or that we're that far behind, it's just that David Moyes' sides have been quite underwhelming when it matters the most, choking at some crucial junctures like the Cup final against Chelsea a couple of seasons ago, the Cup semi against Liverpool last season, and the Champions League qualifier against Villareal a few years ago. The run-in to this season involved away games at Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, all of them places that Moyes simply has not won at. Away draws at Spurs and the Gunners would have been fine if we were ahead of those sides in the table, but we needed six points from those two games and the draws were simply not good enough. I have to say, and I might be taking the pessimist's view, but if it comes down to winning at Chelsea on the last weekend of the season to make the Champions League, I simply do not see us coming away with three points.
It looks like there's lot more depth in the squad than there has been in recent seasons. Would you call this the most talented squad of players Moyes has assembled?
RBM: Definitely the most talented lot Moyes has had to work with in his eleven year tenure at Goodison. We have better players in each spot pretty much, but the team is still lacking in squad depth. Beyond the starters and a couple of other players, it's slim pickings for some quality. The weakness of Moyes' bench has plagued him all his time at Everton, primarily due to financial reasons. The problem that causes is twofold though, because once the inevitable injuries and suspensions kick in, Everton start to stutter as the bench simply cannot maintain the standard of play the gaffer expects from the team. The other consequence is that towards the end of the season, the star players are running on fumes because they are simply gassed from running around all year, playing in three competitions.
It was recently announced Phil Neville is leaving the club at the end of the season. As someone who's never quite forgiven him for conceding that penalty versus Romania in Euro 2000, can you explain just how important a servant he's been for Everton over the past years?
RBM: Fizzer as he is fondly known has been invaluable. Everton fans love giving him stick especially for some of his performances and his limited ability, but the man is an absolute warrior and a solid leader on the pitch. His motivational skills are legendary and he has been a very important piece of Moyes' time at the Toffees. While Neville has stated that he is willing to go down a couple of rungs in the football league to continue playing, he will be welcomed back with open arms should he choose to go the coaching route at the Finch Farm training facility.
Everton have had a lot of joy against Sunderland over the last decade or so, to the point where most fans on Wearside go into games expecting nothing at all. However after last weekends result, there's a lot more confidence around the club. Does this worry you going into this weekends game, considering how just a few weeks ago you would've probably had this down as a guaranteed win?
RBM: My concern is that Everton might go into this game already looking ahead to the derby game coming up. This has been a problem all season long, because for the most part we have played well against the top clubs, and if we miss out on Europe it will be because of the points dropped to the Norwich City and Reading ilk, games we should have won handily.
I am always hesitant when we play against teams with new coaches, because the emotional intensity is always higher and players end up playing above and beyond themselves. We saw that Mauricio Pocchetino at Southampton when we drew a game where we needed the three points. Over the years there've been some pitched battles between the Black Cats and Everton, and this is a tie that I've always relished. I will be happy that we won't have to face Steven Fletcher who has had some joy against us in the past, but I do admire the abilities of Stephane Sessegnon and would be very wary of him come Saturday
How do you rate Paolo Di Canio's chances of success here at Sunderland?
RBM: The drama regarding his rumored political affiliations aside, I think he has a chance to do very well at Wearside. He does have an explosive personality and from what I read has already been a polarizing factor for Sunderland, which I would rather have any day than some milquetoast manager. Can you imagine him getting in the referee's faces, dressing down a petulant Roberto Mancini and slide-tackling a whiny Arsene Wenger when the Frenchman is moaning and groaning in the fourth official's ear?!
I do have a soft spot for the man after his unprecedented act of sportsmanship, shunning an empty goal to stop play as Everton goalie Paul Gerrard lay writhing on the ground.
Are there any weaknesses in Everton's set-up that Sunderland can look to exploit?
RBM: Everton have struggled all year in defence with clearing from setpieces. We have conceded the most goals in the League from headers, and it is primarily in the latter stages of the game, mostly due to players losing their focus when games get heated up. Corners, freekicks and deep throws are all fair game for the home side to get their heads to. Sebastian Larsson has an excellent delivery and will be a key part of the game.
Another situation where Everton have been susceptible is the long ball over the backline for a speedy striker to chase onto.
Are they any particular Sunderland players that worry you?
RBM: I'd keep an eye on Sessegnon again - he does have the ability to create chances out of nothing for himself, and also situations where he could play in James McClean and Adam Johnson. Simon Mignolet always seems to have a blinder whenever we play him, and I'm sure he'd enjoy frustrating his fellow Belgians Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini
On the other hand, where do Everton's strengths lie ahead of this game? Are there any areas of weakness Sunderland have you feel you can take advantage of?
RBM: It remains to be seen what Di Canio's side shapes up as - two games is too small a sample size to determine that. If Sunderland cede the bulk of the possession to Everton, there is a good chance they will be punished. The Blues are at their best when they hold the ball, spraying it around in midfield with Darron Gibson looking for the searching pass, or the Leighton Baines - Steven Pienaar combo weaving magic on the left or the Mirallas and Seamus Coleman pair blazing down the right wing. Victor Anichebe and Fellaini both play a very physical game and will pose a challenge for the Sunderland backline.
RBM: Everton are playing some really good football right now, and I would expect them to be up for this challenge. 2-1 to the away side, with a late goal in the last fifteen minutes.
One final question, and it's something that's been on my mind all week. Who, in your opinion, would win in a fight between Moyes and Di Canio?
RBM: This would be worth watching wouldn't it? You know Di Canio has all the hallmarks of being a streetbrawler (wasn't he raised in Quarticciolo, the 'rougher' side of Rome?), while Moyes has this Daniel Craig look to him, his icy-cold stare belying what could be a tenacious Glaswegian street fighter. This would probably go all twelve rounds with Di Canio winning on points.