Everton 1 - 1 Crystal Palace
Seven games, 14 points and what will at the very least be a 6th-place berth heading into the second international break of the season represents a good start under new manager Ronald Koeman. Obviously, you’d have taken that record at any point during the final seven games of last season and, obviously, if it establishes the pattern for the campaign, it puts Everton on course for Europa League qualification.
Yet, there’s a feeling that the Blues have spurned an excellent opportunity to be sitting even higher in the table heading into October and a return of just one point from Bournemouth and Crystal Palace serves to underline the fact that Koeman still has plenty of work to do with a team still finding its way.
The ingredients for a stirring return to winning ways against Palace were certainly there — a packed house under the lights at Goodison Park and only the absence of Leighton Baines seemingly denying the manager his strongest line-up. What is his best starting XI remains up in the air somewhat, though. Tom Cleverley, who was arguably the best player in blue last weekend when he came on in the second half at the Vitality Stadium, was drafted in for this match at the expense of Kevin Mirallas, with Koeman seemingly sacrificing either width or further attacking options in favour of greater energy in the middle of the park.
Though the former Manchester United and Aston Villa man would play the full 90 minutes, it’s doubtful that he justified his selection, particularly where his use of the ball was concerned, but Mirallas’s inability to make the most of his 15 minutes illustrates the difficulty Koeman is having in finding a settled and consistent combination among the forward four players.
While not especially pretty or convincing, Everton were good value for the lead they took into half time thanks to Romelu Lukaku’s brilliant 35th-minute free kick. Chances had been at a high premium up until that point, with neither team working the opposition goalkeeper, but exemplified by a much more robust and combative Ross Barkley, the Blues seemed to be in determined mood even if they lacked craft.
When Phil Jagielka went in bravely to a high-footed challenge and was awarded the foul against him, though, it set up Lukaku to open the scoring. Strictly, it should have been an indirect free kick, but the Belgian striker swept the ball past Steve Mandanda with a well-placed strike.
With three wins on the bounce behind them, a team boasting physical threat and height, Palace are a difficult proposition these days, even without the injured Scott Dann in the team. They came out after the interval strongly and had caught the home side out before they’d really settled back into the contest.
Bryan Oviedo, who was impressive from a defensive standpoint until he made way for Ramiro Funes Mori late on, made a rare error by showing Joel Ward inside which culminated in Christian Benteke rising easily above Seamus Coleman to loop a header that seemed to arc into the net in slow motion with Maarten Stekelenburg perhaps thinking it was destined to drop wide.
The sense of unease within Goodison briefly turned to despair shortly afterwards when, in an almost carbon-copy move, Ward centred to Damien Delaney who also beat his marker in the air to plant a header into the same part of the goal. Fortunately, the linesman’s raised flag came to Everton’s rescue, with James McArthur having been adjudged to have strayed into an offside position.
Responding to that let-off, the Blues regained the initiative for a short while but the second half would provide a neat summation of their present predicament. Palace looked the stronger outfit and were finding plenty of space at times while Everton battled to find an outlet ball and were resorting too often to aimless balls forward. And yet, apart from a diving catch to deny James Tomkins, Stekelenburg was barely troubled for the remainder of the game, underscoring the improved defensive solidity under Koeman.
Though few in number, the best chances fell Everton’s way. A nice move put Idrissa Gueye in for a great chance to open his account since joining from Villa but he was denied by a blocking challenge that deflected his effort wide.
Then, from a corner on the Blues’ left, Barry darted to the near post to flick on the dead-ball delivery and his header would have found the inside of the far post had Jason Puncheon not been on the line to help it behind on the far side.
Yannick Bolasie, dynamic and powerful in the first half against his old team but noticeably poorer in the second, went close with an acrobatic overhead kick, but arguably the clearest opening fell to Coleman who was released into the box by a nice flick from Lukaku but the Irishman snatched at the chance rather than let the ball drop and he sliced it off target.
Ultimately, a draw felt like a let-down, particularly with two weeks off now and a trip to formidable-looking Manchester City looming next. There are signs of progress under Koeman — let’s face it, he’s still only a month and a half into his first season with the club — but they might be more incremental than those early results suggested.
Everton showed a worrying lack of guile, a shortage of quick, incisive passing moves and the final ball was too often delayed or mis-placed when opportunities did present themselves. While Barkley answered the call to press and harry the opposition more in forward areas, certainly more so than Lukaku, it appeared to be at the expense of creativity and that gave the Toffees a disappointingly one-dimensional feel.
Koeman expressed his satisfaction with his team's points return after seven matches and Everton are unquestionably in a better position than before to take advantage of the Dutchman's experience. Being hard to beat, as one Premier League defeat demonstrates, was an important first step. The rest will come... but perhaps over a longer period of time than those first few results suggested.
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