Everton 2- 0 Sunderland
Another home game, another victory. Goodison Park is becoming a fortress again after last season’s miserable record on home turf.
This may have not have been the most pulse-racing of the games that the faithful have witnessed in the League so far this calendar year but it was, nevertheless, a solid home win secured on the back of another clean sheet — admittedly, by a matter of inches!
It was notable, too, for landmarks achieved by Romelu Lukaku and Leighton Baines, the former drawing level with Duncan Ferguson on 60 Premier League goals for Everton and the latter making his 300th appearance for the Blues in that competition.
As a performance, however, it was gloriously illustrative of the mouth-watering midfield options that are now open to Koeman following the arrival of Morgan Schneiderlin to add to last summer’s acquisition of Idrissa Gueye.
The Senegalese midfielder had been criticised by his manager for his somewhat rusty display at Middlesbrough a fortnight ago, his first since returning from Africa Cup of Nations duty, but he was back to his brilliant best this afternoon and capped a fine individual showing with his first goal.
While that personal achievement and that of Lukaku grabbed the headlines, it says something of Schneiderlin that the Frenchman was arguably the man of the match. The January recruit was simply majestic in Everton’s midfield, equal parts conductor, metronome and joint enforcer as he stroked the ball across midfield and tackled anything within proximity to regularly thwart David Moyes’s struggling Sunderland side’s forays forward.
Certainly, watching him ooze class and run the game from the centre of the park, it was hard to imagine how he was only granted 11 minutes of Premier League action under Jose Mourinho before the Portuguese sanctioned his sale last month. Evertonians are already thanking their lucky stars that he was unable to see what Koeman clearly did during the one season they spent together at Southampton in 2014-15.
It was Schneiderlin’s near faultless performance that allowed the likes of Tom Davies and Ross Barkley to provide the attacking drive that helped establish a vice-like grip on the match for the first half an hour. It might also have helped usher a bit more balance to the Blues going forward, as both Gueye and Baines appeared to be given greater license to push up on the left side than has been the case for much of a season characterised by a bias towards the right flank and Seamus Coleman.
In the first telling instance, it was Baines who picked out Ademola Lookman with a low cross in the sixth minute that the 19-year-old almost side-footed home via Jordan Pickford’s inability to hold it but the Sunderland ‘keeper was able to pounce before the ball spun over the goal line.
Gueye’s greater sense of adventure then saw him pop up near the byline in the 20th minute where he tried to fire through goalkeeper’s legs but Pickford slammed the door well at his near post.
Despite some nice passing moves and their clear territorial superiority that offset some highly disappointing deliveries from set-pieces, Everton then lost their impetus a bit as Moyes’s outfit began to ask a few more questions of their hosts’ back line. But apart from Fabio Borini’s wayward effort and a couple of free kicks in dangerous areas, the Black Cats lacked teeth.
Instead it was Everton who belatedly found their cutting edge to establish a lead heading towards half time. Davies raked a beautiful ball into plenty of space for Coleman to retrieve and his cut-back met the run of the onrushing Gueye who swept a controlled side-foot shot past Pickford to open the scoring.
Davies almost padded the lead with a sumptuous effort that arced off the outside of his boot but while the curl took the ball away from the ‘keeper’s dive, it also steered it onto the post and then away to safety from the away side’s perspective.
Though it had been set up for Everton to add to their tally and put Sunderland to the sword, the second period was, for the most part, a disappointing affair in which Koeman’s men took almost 15 minutes to really get going again. In that time, the visitors enjoyed perhaps their best spell and had penalty claims for a handball by the otherwise excellent Ashley Williams waved away by referee Stuart Atwell, saw a Jermaine Defoe shot blocked and avoided trouble when Billy Jones’s header dropped wide of the post from a corner.
Sensing that a change was needed, Koeman withdrew Lookman in favour of Kevin Mirallas — very little had come off for the young winger on the day but what a luxury to be able to give him valuable time to adjust and grow with plenty of first-team minutes — and the Belgian screwed a shot a yard or so wide soon afterwards.
The first chance to put the game to bed was spurned by Barkley when he made a mess of Coleman’s whipped cross in the 73rd minute while Pickford beat away a powerful shot from Lukaku as Everton began to exert some pressure but the pivotal couple of minutes in the match began 12 minutes from the end of the regulation 90.
Referee Atwell ignored what looked to be a foul on Schneiderlin in midfield, Sunderland quickly worked it to Defoe in the box and he rattled a deflected snapshot off the crossbar, one that bounced heart-stoppingly close to the line before Coleman headed the resulting hooked ball back in behind for a corner.
From that set piece, the ball fell to Mirallas just outside his own area and almost instinctively he pinged the ball down the channel for Lukaku to race onto and, with former team-mate Bryan Oviedo in virtually vain pursuit he tore towards goal and found the net via the Costa Rican’s legs to make it 2-0.
Lukaku looked to have laid on goal number three for substitute Enner Valencia in the 87th minute but Pickford came out the victor in a one-on-one duel with the Ecuadorian.
The top six clubs remain, for now, elusive but there are very encouraging signs that Koeman is getting his arms around his Everton “project” and that even if his team aren’t able to catch those above them, the building blocks of a serious tilt at the top four next season continue to be laid in preparation.
An unbeaten start to 2017 in the Premier League, including four successive home wins, and nine games without defeat stretching back to Boxing Day is indicative of that, as was the fairly routine nature of this victory over a team that will do well to beat the drop this time.
Tougher tests await Everton — their next three away games take them to White Hart Lane, Anfield and Old Trafford, while the visit of West Bromwich Albion, the tail in eighth place that the Blues just can’t seem to shake, won’t be an easy proposition at Goodison on 11th March — but they seem to be settling into an encouraging pattern of strong defending, increasing assuredness in possession, and moments of attacking brilliance that could be the platform for great things.
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