Leicester City 0 - 2 Everton
As victories go, this one was sorely needed. Not just as a pick-me-up following more agony in the Merseyside derby but to address an away record that has been dragging Everton down since the unexpected reverse at Bournemouth in September.
It wasn’t pretty, especially in a dour first half, and it wasn’t completely convincing but Ronald Koeman’s side rediscovered some important aspects of their makeup and their play on their travels that could once again form the foundations of a charge for the European places.
Idrissa Gueye’s glaring miss aside, the Blues were clinical when they needed to be, defensively sound in defence of a narrow lead and comfortable between the posts thanks to an assured display by Joel Robles in goal. And in contrast to the over-reliance on going direct in recent games, particularly against Watford and Liverpool, they actually played some football on the deck at times, even if it was just to maintain possession while they tried to pick their way through the opposition.
Then there was the added injection of youth, from the start in the form of Mason Holgate who played on the right-hand side of a three-man back line, and then in the second half from Tom Davies who put in another precocious performance off the bench at a time when Everton needed some more energy in the middle of the park.
With Gareth Barry pushing 36 and Phil Jagielka a year behind him, a changing of the guard will need to take place in Koeman’s team and there was a sense this afternoon that that is now underway. Both veterans will have roles to play as the second half of the season unfolds but Koeman is hopefully now grooming their successors, handing them more game time and more responsibility.
His Everton side will, of course, need more than a smattering of youth to get where it needs to go under his stewardship and the first 45 minutes at the King Power Stadium were a stark illustration. The visitors started with purpose but quickly found their hosts frustratingly hard to break down as Claudio Ranieri, knowing that his opposition is no longer the passing, possession-based outfit they were under Roberto Martinez, had his charges dropping back into an effective blue wall that collapsed the space and snapped into tackles to snuff out any move before it could threaten their goal.
To be fair, Everton’s defence was similarly effective at the other end in the early going but by the midway point of the first period, the Foxes were on top and the Blues found themselves hemmed into their own half for spells. With so little creativity in the line-up, almost nothing was worked through the middle; instead, almost everything was channelled through Seamus Coleman down a congested right flank where debutant Ben Chilwell was a particularly effective bulwark against the visitors’ attacks.
Ranieri’s men had little to show for their relative dominance, however, beyond some “sighters” from 20-plus yards. Robles made a comfortable save to stop one from Daniel Amartey while Demarai Gray finished a counter-attack by firing wide and Islam Slimani hammered another effort well off target from a similar range.
For Everton, Romelu Lukaku was cutting a familiarly isolated figure up front and his only hint of an opening came from an angled ball forward from Barry that almost put him in past the last defender before the opportunity was snuffed out. Ramiro Funes Mori headed over after a 42nd-minute corner had been cleared back to Kevin Mirallas and Leighton Baines almost found the Belgian’s toe with a raking shot-cum-cross in first-half stoppage time.
Koeman has spoken of his side maybe needing a little luck to lift them out of the doldrums and a little came six minutes into the second half just when Evertonian thoughts were drifting towards the substitutes’ bench and musing about what changes could come from there.
Robles swept a long pass over the Leicester defence, catching both Marcin Wasilewski and Wes Morgan on their heels for a crucial split second as Mirallas raced onto it. Taking a touch wide of the goalkeeper, the Belgian looked to slot it past him and his shot was helped into the net by Wasilewski’s foot as he slid in to try and block it. 1-0 and Everton were on their way to three points.
That they secured it owed much to some committed defending, led by the rock solid Ashley Williams at the heart of the Blues rearguard and some pleasingly strong goalkeeping by Robles. The Spaniard wouldn’t be tested much beyond a close-range Leonardo Ulloa that was as close as the Foxes came to equalising but his positioning and dominance in the air was first rate.
Helped by that defensive resilience and the introduction of Davies, Everton refused to allow the kind of fightback from 2-0 down that Leicester pulled off against Stoke last weekend. The 18-year-old even provided some threat going forward, bouncing one shot narrowly wide and then forced a low save from Kasper Schmeichel before Ross Barkley replaced Mirallas to give Leicester one more problem to worry about.
The 23-year-old was involved in what was arguably Everton’s best move of the match seven minutes from time as he released Lukaku down the right and the striker crossed to meet the run of the on-rushing Gueye. Sadly, the Senegalese, on the slide, could only steer the ball over the bar with the goal gaping in front of him.
Instead it was left to Lukaku to kill the game in the first minute of stoppage time as only he can. Outmuscling Morgan in a challenge for a long clearance from the edge of the Blues’ box, he tore away from the defender, feinted to the left of Wasilewski and tucked his shot inside the post before knee-sliding in celebration at his 10th goal of the season.
What had threatened to be another tedious and frustrating afternoon had finished with a professional away performance, Everton ending a three-month wait for an away win and the feeling of a whole lift around the club heading into the final match of the year against bottom of the table Hull.
Grind another win there, follow it up with another three points against Southampton and then start making some astute moves in the transfer market and, all of a sudden, 2016-17 starts to hold promise again that Koeman’s first season in charge will come to represent huge improvement on what came before.
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