The Stuff of Dreams

By Lyndon Lloyd 16/01/2017  40 Comments  [Jump to last]
Everton 4 - 0 Manchester City

Lord knows it hasn't been easy being an Evertonian for much of the last three decades but the intervening period since the Blues' glory days of mid-1980s has certainly been punctuated by moments, special matches and turns of events that remind you why this football club is so deeply embedded in your heart and your soul and why you keep coming back.

This was one of those matches and much more; an almost perfect afternoon which layered on memorable moment after memorable moment, building to a crescendo as Everton inflicted on Pep Guardiola the heaviest defeat of his much-lauded managerial career. It was the Spaniard's first match at Goodison Park and, as images of him sitting slumped and shell-shocked in the dugout amid a rocking, triumphant atmosphere illustrated, it's one that will live long in his memory, too.

Had nothing of note happened for the 56 minutes after Romelu Lukaku put the Blues into the lead, the game would likely have been a special enough occasion in its own right. It had started with pre-match poignancy as the Belgian carried Bradley Lowery, the little Sunderland fan diagnosed with Neuroblastoma who was mascot for the day, onto the field, followed by a minute's applause for Graham Taylor and Jim Greenwood, both of whom passed away last week.

Those heart-warming moments coupled with a 1-0 win, delivered by a well-worked, expertly finished goal and underscoring the incremental progress being made under Ronald Koeman, would have represented a lovely afternoon for the home fans on their own. What unfolded was as unexpected as it was thrilling.

The days leading up the game had been dominated by the arrival of Morgan Schneiderlin and the hope that, following last weekend's chastening cup exit at the hands of Leicester and the manner of it, the Frenchman might be able to make an instant impact to mark the next phase of Koeman's rebuilding process.

The expectation and, perhaps, fear was that the new signing would replace Tom Davies if he were deemed to fit enough to start; in the end, while he was named on the bench and came on after 65 minutes to replace Kevin Mirallas, his appearance was a footnote in the narrative of this game as Davies took top billing on a day full of potential headlines.

The 18-year-old midfielder retained in his place in the side alongside Gareth Barry in a line-up that featured just one change from last weekend, that of Mirallas for Enner Valencia, and had by the final whistle come of age with a personal performance to savour.

It was his anticipation of Gael Clichy's forward pass and beautifully-weighted forward pass to Mirallas that split three opposition players down the right channel that created the first goal and illustrated his versatility as a central midfielder. The Belgian's cutback to his compatriot near the penalty spot was perfect and Lukaku side-footed confidently past the wrong-footed Claudio Bravo to make it 1-0 in the 34th minute.

It was Everton's first real chance of the match — an equally good move that ended with Mirallas tapping home from close range had been pulled back for offside on Seamus Coleman earlier in the half — which was a reflection of how this contest had been expected to play out: City controlling possession, carving out the bulk of the chances and the hosts needing to take the chances that fell their way.

Guardiola's side had indeed looked the more likely to score up to that point even if Everton were determined not to make it easy for them. The Blues were tenacious from the first whistle — Mason Holgate, excellent throughout, had stamped his authority on Sergio Agüero after just 22 seconds with a robust tackle and it took Davies just six minutes to get his first warning from Mark Clattenburg when he fouled Raheem Sterling.

City were left smarting in the 12th minute, however, when Sterling went down in the box, apparently clipped by Joel Robles as he tried to dribble his way to goal. Television replays would reveal the Spanish ‘keeper did make contact with the winger's leg but Leighton Baines's covering tackle that trapped the ball largely rendered the argument moot — he wouldn't have scored even if he'd kept his feet.

If the visitors felt aggrieved going into the break a goal down, it was down to Robles, who kept his place despite Maarten Stekelenburg's return to fitness, and Davies who ensured the Blues took a clean sheet into half time. The ‘keeper saved Sterling's volley from close range from a floated ball over the top of the defence and then did brilliantly to save at the feet of David Silva in similar circumstances after Ramiro Funes Mori had been caught out trying to rampage through midfield.

Davies, meanwhile, was perfectly placed on his own goal line in first-half stoppage time to head Bacary Sagna's looping header away after the fullback had been picked out by a deep cross from the left by Clichy.

Any attempt by City to get back into the game early in the second half was cut off the knees superbly by Everton who doubled the lead within two minutes of the restart and then took a stranglehold on the contest as every player in royal blue seemed to grow in stature.

Barry knocked the ball away from Yaya Toure in the centre circle to Lukaku and though his slide-rule pass aimed for Mirallas was cut out by John Stones's almost telescopic leg, the ball broke to Barkley who quickly played the latter Belgian in on the edge of the box. Mirallas, whose personal rejuvenation under Koeman's stewardship over the past month has perhaps flown under the radar, checked his run masterfully to stay onside and made no mistake with the opportunity, rifling a low shot into the far corner to make it 2-0.

That almost nothing of note in terms of chances happened for the next half an hour was testament to the way in which City's much-touted attack had been completely stifled. Funes Mori had settled down following a couple of rash moments in the first half, Ashley Williams was enjoying one of his best displays in an Everton shirt so far and both Davies and Barry were suffocating De Bruyne in the middle of the park, a player who cost about the same amount as the Toffees' starting XI combined.

Barkley, meanwhile, shrugged off a chequered first period of his own where he had let himself down with some poor forward distribution to play a vital role in what was a sublime third goal 11 minutes from time, one which may end up being one of the most viewed Everton goals of the past few years.

Holgate dispossessed Sterling just outside his own area, Davies picked up the loose ball and took off down the right flank. Leaving Clichy and Touré for dead with an audacious “Ronaldo chop” on the touchline, his role in the attack seemed to have been ended by a collision with Stones. The teenager sensed opportunity, however, picked himself up in time to collect another precise Barkley pass and picked his moment to clip the ball over the advancing Bravo. Time seemed to slow down as it bounced goal-wards by the near post, Lukaku arriving to make sure the spin on the ball didn't carry it wide before Davies wheeled away in almost incredulous celebration in front of the Gwladys Street end.

A brilliant first ever goal for a player already rapidly blossoming into an Everton star felt like the icing on the cake but just when you felt it couldn't get any better, the day had one last moment of magic to offer after Robles had saved well from Agüero and Lukaku had cut a left-foot shot across goal from a tight angle.

Koeman sent new signing Ademola Lookman on in the 89th minute to savour the atmosphere and get a few minutes under his belt as an Everton player but within minutes he would etch his name onto a fabulous Blues performance with a moment of anticipation and a confident finish that rounded out the win in style.

In a similar fashion to Everton under Roberto Martinez, City had spent much of the first half trying to play their way out from the back, sometimes in the most risk-defying manner, so it was ironic that Stones's attempt to just knock the ball into the stands in the final minute of stoppage time ricocheted off Coleman and bounced into Lookman's path. The 19-year-old took one touch to put the ball in front of him and then buried a shot between the ‘keeper's legs before he, too, made for the Street end in elation, knee-sliding towards the corner flag before being mobbed by his team-mates. Robles ran the length of the field to join the party as Lukaku bear-hugged the stunned teenager, the celebrations the last act before Clattenburg blew the final whistle as demoralised City kicked off for the final time.

More so than the win over Arsenal a month ago, where the Blues seemed to turn the game on its head through force of will; Evertonians will hope this is a transformative moment in Koeman's first season. Certainly, the precocious impact of Davies, the freedom his presence seems to afford Barkley, the increasingly prominent leadership role Lukaku appears to be adopting, Mirallas's revival and the emergence of a solid defensive three in the form of Williams; Holgate and Funes Mori, means it has the potential to be.

It should not be overlooked that City came into this fixture on the back of a 5-0 FA Cup demolition of West Ham away from home and with their title credentials intact despite defeat to Leicester last month. Everton, meanwhile, supposedly had nothing to play for after being dumped out the cup.

Questions still remain over the team's mentality when the chips are down — last weekend's cup defeat came not long after the festive-season wins over the Gunners and Foxes — and its ability to unlock more entrenched, less charitable defences when the onus will be on them to attack and create rather than absorb pressure and prey ruthlessly on opposition errors. The solutions there may yet lie in the transfer market but the evidence that the current personnel are finally adapting to the manager's methods and are growing in confidence as a result certainly bodes well for a season that is not over despite the gloom that was pervasive last weekend.

And even if it were, the possibilities would still exist for moments like the ones served up on a transcendent afternoon at the Grand Old Lady. More performances like today and Koeman's goal top-six goal won't be as far-fetched as it looked eight days ago.

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