Everton 3 - 1 Middlesbrough
It was fleeting but reflexive; that moment of doubt born of frustrating games over the past 12 months, particularly at Goodison Park, where precious points were needlessly frittered away or Everton under the old regime would fail to capitalise on an opportunity to consolidate a strong position in the table.
Those old habitual instincts may die hard but, with each passing game under Ronald Koeman’s assured leadership, Evertonians are allowing confidence to creep back into their psyche, not least because of games like this.
1-0 down to a controversial goal, the cavalier Blues side of early last season might well have fought back but ended up throwing the game away again anyway; the more brittle version of just a few months ago might have caved altogether in the face of injustice, the size of the task and the frustration pouring out of the stands.
Confidence is a powerful thing in football, though, and Koeman is restoring it in spades at Everton, to the point where they simply brushed off an awful decision by Lee Mason to overlook Alvaro Negredo’s foul on Maarten Stekelenburg today and allow Middlesbrough to take the lead after 20 minutes, turned the match on its head and had it effectively won by half-time.
Koeman remarked after the game that his team probably benefitted from the incident as it lit a fire under his charges when they had failed to really spark into life up to that point. With the backing of an irate home crowd, who were in no doubt that Mason had egregiously erred, they were level within three minutes of Boro going ahead and it was fitting on the occasion of his 600th Premier League appearance, that it was Gareth Barry who scored the equaliser.
The two goals that followed to make it 3-1 at the break were also significant in their own way: a marauding Seamus Coleman evoked his much-missed glittering form of three seasons ago with a brilliant run and finish to put Everton ahead; Yannick Bolasie, meanwhile, poured more cold water on assertions from critics of his days at Crystal Palace that he lacks end product by providing either the assist or the goal itself that doubled the Toffees’ advantage in first-half stoppage time.
Most important, of course, was the fact that, while there were no further goals in the second period, the visitors never looked like getting back into the contest, even during their most concerted efforts late on when Everton sat back probably a little too much for the fans’ liking but preserved the scoreline by preventing Middlesbrough from having a single shot on Stekelenburg’s goal.
Much of that was down to the combination of a vastly improved defensive setup, a visibly fitter collection of players, and their consequent work-rate that started with the front players and extended to the back, where the gladiatorial duo of Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams refused to give Boro an inch.
In front of them, Barry was again supported by the imperious Idrissa Gueye who turned in another man-of-the-match display of stunning effectiveness. The Senegalese seemed to cover every blade of grass, tackled anything that moved, and again weighed in with an assist, all of which added to his burgeoning reputation as the undisputed signing of the summer.
The game was won, however, with Everton’s superior talents at the other end once they had gathered the impetus to have a real go at Aitor Karanka’s outfit. Middlesbrough had started confidently and through their discipline and organisation were making things difficult for their hosts.
The Blues, with Ross Barkley sensibly restored to the starting XI but understandably tentative in the early going, were forced to be patient but were showing signs of getting on top when Boro scored. Great work by Kevin Mirallas, who worked tirelessly for the 70 minutes he was on the field, ended with Barkley forcing a parried save from Victor Valdés before the Belgian saw a low shot of his own saved.
It was a deep cross by George Friend at the other end that led to the opening goal, however, one for which Negredo was entitled to challenge but when his head connected with Stekelenburg’s arms rather than the ball, everyone expected the referee to blow for the foul. There was disbelief and fury when he pointed to the centre-circle but Everton channeled that emotion into an almost immediate response.
The second of two successive corners was swung in from the Everton left, Williams almost connected in front of the goalkeeper and when the ball bounced through towards the back of the area, Barry had peeled away smartly to benefit from time and space and sweep it home with a nicely controlled finish.
Barkley’s twisting and turning run saw him go close to putting Everton ahead but he fired over; Bolasie dropped a header into the roof of the net; and another powerful run by Barkley that ended with his shot being charged down signalled his growing confidence as the half wore on.
Boro’s resistance melted in the face of a neat move three minutes before the break, however, as Gueye picked out Coleman’s run and he dribbled inside two defenders and drew the ‘keeper, opening up both sides of the goal to allow him to tuck the ball into the corner with aplomb.
And four minutes after that came the killer third. Bolasie engineered space for a teasing cross from the right that caught Valdés in two minds as Lukaku looked certain to get decisive contact on the ball but, whether with the aid of the merest of touches from the striker or not, it swerved into the far corner to make it 3-1 at half-time.
In truth, the second half was a bit of a non-event, save for an injury that forced Lukaku off to the benefit of debutant Enner Valencia and further evidence that the manager’s decision to keep Barkley in the side was being vindicated by a purposeful display from the 22-year-old. It was he who came closest to padding the scoreline but his powerful drive from the angle was denied by a low save by Valdés.
Valencia was game and matched the tenacity and endeavour of his team-mates but he wouldn’t get the chance to mark his first appearance since arriving from West Ham with a goal. Some icing on the cake would have been nice in terms of entertainment value but there can’t have been an Evertonian who wasn’t on cloud nine when the whistle went, calling time on a fourth successive victory that puts the Blues in 2nd place.
With job done in another eminently winnable game, the Koeman effect has very much taken hold at Goodison and all the Dutchman needs to ensure now is that his team remains focused, motivated and hungry as two more league matches — with the cup tie against Norwich sandwiched in between — that fit the same description loom to close out September.
Again, that nagging doubt in the Evertonian mind might not have been completely banished yet but there’s mounting confidence that the team can win matches from any position now and that this could turn out to be a very special season indeed. Long may that feeling continue!
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