One League defeat since the derby on 19th December, six consecutive home wins with clean sheets in five of them and 22 goals for the Goodison faithful to savour… it’s fair to say that Ronald Koeman has his feet very much under the table at Everton who have now put themselves in a position to disrupt the top six down the season’s home straight if any of the four or five teams above them stumble.
Curiously, perhaps the 4-0 demolition of Manchester City aside, they haven’t really pulled off a performance that you could describe as brilliant or even consistent across 90 minutes but, at home at least, they haven’t had to and this drubbing of Hull City, also 4-0, was no exception. And by the time Romelu Lukaku had rounded off the afternoon with two very well taken goals, there was a definite feeling that the result had never been in doubt.
Even though Hull made a concerted effort to get back into the contest after conceding an early goal, there was always the feeling that even if the visitors were to equalise, as they very nearly did following a near-disastrous misunderstanding between Ashley Williams and Joel Robles seven minutes before the interval, the Blues would be strong enough to go on and win.
As it happened, the resolve of Koeman’s side wasn’t tested to that degree but it took the somewhat harsh sending off of Tom Huddlestone to tip the match decisively in Everton’s favour and they didn’t pass up the invitation to the put matters to bed with three goals in the last quarter of an hour.
It’s that confidence in their ability to press home their superiority against lesser sides at home and to score late goals in particular that has coursed through the Blues’ two most recent displays. It may not have translated into many clear-cut opportunities until the game was broken open towards the end of the second half but there was an assuredness about Everton that marks a stark change from this time last year when they were buckling under opposition pressure on home turf.
Much of that confidence came from Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s first goal for the club after just seven minutes. Named in the starting XI for first time since he injured his ankle on his full debut against Southampton the 2nd of January, the 20-year-old helped himself to a late birthday present when he side-footed home Tom Davies’s cross.
It was a tidy finish to a terrific move where Ross Barkley sprung the offside trap with a perfectly-weighted ball ahead of Davies’ intelligent run and the latter’s square centre was on the button for Calvert-Lewin to convert. It was also the perfect encapsulation of the exciting injection of youth that Koeman has overseen over the past few months.
Still just 18, Davies is an integral part of Everton’s midfield now; an irrepressible and energetic presence in the centre of the park who provides all of that forward momentum that was lacking in the team’s play over much of the first half of the season and he was arguably the man of the match when he was replaced by
Barkley, for his part, has flourished with his fellow Academy graduate in the team and with Idrissa Gueye snapping into tackles behind and Morgan Schneiderlin orchestrating things with his now-familiar Gallic elegance, there is robustness and guile in the middle of the park for the Blues that has under-pinned their recent run of form.
It’s why the loss of Schneiderlin to injury after just half an hour was so disappointing and concerning in view of the upcoming trip across Stanley Park at the start of next month. He was replaced by Gareth Barry who was an able deputy but the Frenchman’s younger legs would be far better suited to the Anfield derby.
For all of Everton’s control of the first 45 minutes, they really only had a couple of “almost” moments to show for themselves: first, when Barkley’s cross skipped past Davies in the middle and just eluded Calvert-Lewin at the back post and then when Williams could only head straight at Eldin Jakupovic.
They should probably have gone into the interval when Williams hesitated as Robles appeared to come for the ball and then under-cooked his header back to the Spanish keeper which allowed Matt Clucas to steal in between them and lob a shot that, thankfully, dropped onto the roof of the net rather than under the bar.
And it was Hull’s strong start to the second half that prompted Koeman into shuffling his formation and switching to a back three by withdrawing Calvert-Lewin and introducing Ramiro Funes Mori 10 minutes after the restart.
Almost immediately Romelu Lukaku sprang to life with similar efforts within the space of three minutes while Funes Mori also had a good chance following a set-piece. The Belgian twice cut in from the right channel to belt left-footed shots towards goal, one clearing the bar by a couple of feet and the other stinging the palms of Jakupovic who parried it behind. In between, the Argentine international whacked a wild right-foot shot across goal.
There was a lack of decisiveness about Everton overall, though, and after their boss Marco Silva responded with a tactical tweak of his own when he abandoned his own three-man back line, Hull remained in with a shout with the score still at 1-0.
Fullback, Andy Robertson, wasted arguably their best chance when, unmarked at the back post, he side-footed a volley into the side-netting a minute before Huddlestone received his marching orders from referee Paul Tierney.
Seconds after Davies was clattered to the floor by Maguire, Huddlestone scythed Gueye down with a tackle that was probably more accidental than intentional as his foot went over the ball and into the Senegalese midfielder’s ankle but the official deemed it worthy of a straight red.
Five minutes later, Koeman substituted Davies with Enner Valencia and 69 seconds later, it was 2-0. The Ecuadorian played a one-two with Lukaku, darting between two defenders to chest down the Belgian’s exquisite dink forward and then banged the ball past the stranded ‘keeper.
Then, as the match moved into stoppage time, Lukaku plundered a brace that made him the first Everton striker to pass 20 league goals in a season since Gary Lineker 31 years previously.
The first came when Valencia played him in with a pass through a gaping hole in the visitors’ defence that Lukaku swept home and the second was a gift from a poor back-pass that he anticipated superbly before rounding Jakupovic and rolling into the empty net to complete the rout.
The 23-year-old had dominated the headlines in the latter half of last week with his comments to the media regarding his future in which he spelled out once more his belief that he is ready for Champions League football. In fairness to him, he continues to back up those claims with goals — 22 of them in all competitions this season — and if he can keep firing them in at this rate and deliver surprise wins at Anfield and Old Trafford, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could be playing in Europe’s elite competition with Everton.
That remains a very tall order despite a result that pulls the Blues level on points with Arsenal, two behind Manchester United (both have two games in hand) and six behind Liverpool. Nevertheless, the progress that is being shown now under Koeman points towards a genuine challenge for the Champions League qualification places next season, particularly if Lukaku is still leading the Blues’ attack. Whether he is is a media-driven saga to come but the immediate focus is on finishing as high in the table as possible.
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