Crystal Palace 0 - 1 Everton
The evolution of Everton under Ronald Koeman continues, as does football's tendency to demonstrate how quickly things can change. Despondency at the Blues' prospects for the remainder of the Dutchman's first season in charge was pervasive after the defeats against Watford last month and Leicester just a couple of weeks ago and there were more than a few doubting his ability to fulfill the huge expectations that greeted his appointment in June.
Now, while Evertonians shouldn't get ahead of themselves, it's hard not to feel optimistic again as a clear path to progress has been revealed following a victory at Selhurst Park that showed the continued emergence of a different Everton. An Everton that can marry the silkier, more possession-based approach aspired to by Roberto Martinez with the defiant, obdurate and robust one favoured by his successor.
It’s hard to imagine the Blues side of last season winning this game. Where last week was all about absorbing pressure and ruthlessly capitalising on opportunities, this was a match where Everton had to take the game to an opposition low on confidence and committed to defending as a first resort and it will have pleased supporters and manager alike how effective they were at times.
This was a much better performance than Everton will get credit for and one that probably deserved a bigger margin of victory than the slender 1-0 advantage that proved to be enough in the end. For all their troubles this season, Crystal Palace can be a dangerous side, particularly at home, and with Loic Remy providing the mobile foil for Christian Benteke’s aerial prowess, the Blues might have felt they were in for a more difficult afternoon than was ultimately the case. It certainly seemed that way early on when the Belgian headed onto the crossbar from James McArthur’s cross.
It was by no means easy, though, despite the fact that Palace were restricted to just one effort on target in the 90 minutes, a Scott Dann header in the 79th minute that looked for a few heart-stopping seconds as though it would punish Everton for not pressing home their dominance with goals on the one hand and conceding silly fouls in dangerous areas outside their box on the other.
Had Joel Robles not made a fine save to palm the centre-half’s powerful header aside for a corner, few among the 3,000 travelling Evertonians would have been surprised; it would have been so “Everton, that.” But this version of Everton under Koeman is morphing into an altogether more robust unit, adding a possession and passing game to its identity that was wholly absent in another away game of this physical nature at Burnley in October.
That day, the Blues were the better side in terms of chances but they had a suicidal inability to keep the ball and they were beaten by a last-minute goal that, coming at the of a stretch of five games without a win, served to starkly illustrate the amount of work Koeman had ahead of him after a misleadingly positive start to his tenure at Goodison Park.
With three impressive league victories on the bounce and as many clean sheets, that work looks to be bearing fruit and Everton are once again looking up the table rather than down.
Sensibly, Koeman kept faith with the line-up that had started the 4-0 demolition of Manchester City last Sunday, which meant Robles justifiably keeping his place in goal, Gareth Barry lining up alongside the star of last weekend, Tom Davies, and Morgan Schneiderlin named among the substitutes. It also retained the three man central defensive unit that has emerged as the foundation behind Everton’s recent revival and solidity at the back, one that was also wise given the physical threat posed by Sam Allardyce’s Palace.
Just as important was that the Blues looked like a proper footballing outfit for long periods of this game, passing and probing, looking for space and opportunities between the lines in a way that fans were crying out for earlier this season.
They had to be patient in the early going as Palace retreated into their half but by the quarter hour mark, they were starting to cause the home side problems in their penalty area, Kevin Mirallas picking up Romelu Luaku’s layoff but finding himself crowded out before Ross Barkley went on an excellent jinking run but flashed a deflected shot past Wayne Hennessey’s right-hand post.
The resulting corner was taken short but ended with Mirallas taking a cross down on his chest and volleying goal-wards but it was at a decent height for the ‘keeper to parry it away. And Hennessey was on hand to palm another Barkley effort over the bar before making his best save of the afternoon to deny a tremendous effort by Ramiro Funes Mori. The Argentine defender brought down Ashley Williams’s flick on from a corner, out-foxing his marker in the process, and fired right-footed towards the top corner but Hennessey got a hand to it to divert it behind again.
A few minutes before that, Lukaku, who led the line impressively throughout with strong hold-up play, had gone as close as Everton would come to breaking the deadlock before the break when he scuffed a shot off the post, Barkley denied a goal by the offside flag as he put the ball into the empty net.
With matters goalless at the break, you felt that it was developing into the sort of game where Everton needed to score when they were on top or they were going to be undone by a stupid foul and a set-piece. Koeman’s men had dealt with Allardyce’s aerial weapons off free kicks and corners well in the first 45 minutes, however, and as long as that continued in the second period, there was also the sense that a goal for the visitors would eventually come. It did, of course, but it arrived late in the match.
In between, the Blues continued their pattern of territorial superiority after half time and had two quick opportunities when Mirallas bobbled a mis-hit volley at Hennessey and Barkley smashed the ball across the face of the Welsh international’s goal after being sent away by a brilliant raking pass over the top by Davies.
The teenager continues to look completely at home in Everton’s midfield and with Barkley dictating the rhythm and tempo in midfield with perhaps his best display of the season from a slightly deeper role than normal, Koeman’s men looked impressive going forward. The 23-year-old himself epitomised that in the 56th minute when he surged into space in the box but, unfortunately, dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Three minutes later, Coleman collected the ball at the end of an excellent run by Mason Holgate, again looking every inch a top Premier League defender, and picked out Lukaku with a cross from the right but the striker headed narrowly over the crossbar.
Barry’s race was run with an hour gone and he was replaced by Schneiderlin and after Hennessey had made another stop to parry Barkley’s strong shot from 20 yards, Ademola Lookman came on to replace Mirallas. The teenager was involved immediately, latching onto a knock inside by Lukaku but shooting straight at the ‘keeper.
Still level with 15 minutes still to play, it was understandable that Palace began to sense an opportunity and their efforts to press forward more coincided with a loss of momentum on Everton’s part. When Baines bundled McArthur over in the right back position, handing the home side another free in a dangerous area, Allardyce’s side were presented with their best chance of the half. Thankfully, Robles was equal to it.
And when the Blues resumed the offensive in the closing minutes, they finally got their reward for a laudable all-round display, even if the circumstances surrounding it left Palace fans and their manager bleating. Playing on and sustaining pressure outside the home area with the permission of referee Anthony Taylor while Jeffrey Schlupp stayed down at the other end with what looked like cramp, Everton eventually made inroads when Hennessey spilled Holgate’s deflected low cross.
The ball was hacked clear by Joe Ledly only as far as Davies and he sprung the offside trap by playing in Coleman who had peeled into space off Damian Delaney. The Irishman took two touches, lashed the ball past Hennessey and sped off in celebration in front of the contingent of away fans to his right.
Again, it was no more than Koeman’s men deserved and they would earn the points with a defensive stand over the remaining six minutes as Palace pumped the ball into the box hoping something would break. Robles’s supreme command of his box and tip over the bar from Benteke’s header would ensure it would remain Everton’s day, though, as he helped preserve three vital points. It felt like a big result; now for another at Stoke.
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