Everton suffered a set-back in their attempts to chase down the top six as they were held to a goalless draw by relegation-threatened Middlesbrough.
The Blues put six past Bournemouth last weekend but their attack was largely shut down by a stubborn Boro defence and on the few occasions that the hosts' back line was breached, goalkeeper Victor Valdes pulled off some vital stops.
The Spaniard came up trumps in a one-on-one duel with Romelu Lukaku in the first half and twice denied Ademola Lookman while his compatriot Joel Robles pulled off the stop of the match three minutes from time at the other end.
Ronald Koeman made two changes to the side that started last weekend's 6-3 win, drafting Idrissa Gueye back into midfield for his first start since the Africa Cup of Nations in place of Gareth Barry and Tom Davies for James McCarthy who, like Kevin Mirallas, was missing from the squad altogether.
And Everton began in the manner expected of the better side, with good possession in the early stages and a couple of early forays, one of which prompted Valdes to smother at the feet of Davies.
The home side, meanwhile, were looking to threaten through the pace and power of Adama Traore but it was Alvaro Negredo whose ball inside to Adam Forshaw following an error by Ramiro Funes Mori who caused panic in the Blues box before Robles charged the ball down.
Seamus Coleman then put in last-ditch saving tackle on Traore before Davies pounced on an error by Bernardo to send Lukaku away but Valdes saved well with his foot to keep it goalless with half an hour gone.
The Boro keeper was on hand to make another save with his leg when Coleman surged down the right on the overlap and his cross ended at the feet of Lookman at the far post but despite wrong-footing his marker with a clever drag-back, he couldn't beat Valdes.
The 19-year-old also hit the side-netting with a low shot late in the half as Everton pressed going into the interval but their intensity dropped in the second half and it was the hosts who came out for the second half as the stronger team.
Aitor Karanka's men have struggled for goals all season though and Steve Gibson could only head straight at Robles from a free kick on the edge of the box and Leighton Baines had to head off his own line following a corner just past the hour mark.
Koeman had made his first change by that point, withdrawing Gueye in favour of Enner Valencia, but it was Lookman who had the best chance for the Toffees in the second period. The youngster was put in brilliantly by Ross Barkley's pass but again he was foiled by Valdes as he tried to fire home from the angle.
Karanka, who was fortunate to have his full complement of players after referee Mike Dean ignored what was a second bookable offence by Adam Clayton, threw Rudy Gestede on for the final few minutes in place of Negredo and the big striker came very close to winning it with a powerful header but Robles pulled off a magnificent reflex save to tip it over the crossbar.
It's a draw, the first 0-0 under Koeman, that extends Everton's unbeaten run in the league to eight games but with Manchester United winning at home against Watford, it also represents two points dropped in the pursuit of the top six.
The team now leaves the sleet and driving rain of Teesside and heads to Dubai for a warm-weather training camp to help fill the two-week break to the next match at Goodison Park against Sunderland.
Idrissa Gueye returns to the side for Everton's trip to relegation-threatened Middlesbrough. Barry makes way with no Mirallas or McCarthy on the bench.
Ademola Lookman gets his second start in the Premier League, with Tom Davies returning in midfield. Lennon, Koné and Valencia provide the reserve firepower from the bench.
Tom Davies kicked off but Williams resisted the punt upfield, Everton circulating possession within their own half for the first two minutes, Schneiderlin failing to find Lookman wide left. Schneiderlin won the ball back, fed Barkley wide right, who jinked inside getting Davies in close but with his back to goal he could do little with the creative ball.
Everton, in their all-black strip, were playing very confidently, and moving the ball around well, Gana releasing a great ball for Davies to chase. With heavy freezing rain and sleet coming down, the pace of the game was lively and relatively open, Traore giving the home fans a lift whenever he got on the ball.
Everton were dominating possession with slow build-up from the back, letting Boro form up their defensive wall with no element of real pace, and struggled to force through despite the energy of Davies and Lookman. When Boro did get the ball, there was an element of danger with Everton looking a little shaky at the back.
Adam Forshaw, previously of the Everton Academy, was playing his part for the home side, getting in a number of foul tackles. But the Blues' passing was just a fraction off on key forward balls, with the Boro players closing down well. Gana found Lukaku on the right with a nice ball and the big man did well to run in but slipped comically and spooned the ball behind as he set up to cross.
Lookman was a livewire and seemed to have bamboozled two defenders before the ball was stolen off him by Traore as he went down in the Boro area, but no foul. Some brilliant Everton passing saw Fabio concede Everton's first corner, taken from the right by Barkley, with a brilliant outswinger that fooled everyone, but Baines returned a brilliant ball to the back post; Funes Mori, however, was not the man to make the most of it.
More very scary attacks by Boro made the Everton defense look Sunday League as the ball pinged about but each time, Traore it would not fall quite right. Davies released Lukaku who had a trademark run in on Valdes to score... only he fired too close to the oncoming keeper who saved well with his outstretched leg.
More brilliant work by Davies looked to release Lukaku again but he had strayed offside. He started coming deep — too deep, as he twice was forced backwards into Everton's half under close attention from Boro defenders.
Some brilliant passing saw the ball out to Baines and a promising cross but Lukaku was called for a foul by Mr Dean. Another fabulous move saw Coleman cross in well to Lookman, whose shot was saved at close range, then Barkley dancing into the area and Lookman coming so close but denied by more tight last-ditch defending to block his shot after a brilliant drag-back.
Baines and Lookman then combined on the left, Lookman making great space and lashing in a low shot, just wide of Valdes's goal. More panic at the back for the visitors, though, as the ball seemed to bounce off Funes Mori and needed a hoof from, of all people, Idrissa Gueye to clear the lines. Some brilliant football from Everton in the first half, but not too many clear-cut chances to score.
Boro won an early corner off Traore after the restart and it needed a header from Coleman to clear. Traore then powered forward and lashed a shot that may have been deflected wide. Danger signals, as Boro seemed brighter and quicker to the ball.
Traore again ran in, forcing Coleman and Williams to bring him down on the edge of the area. Forshaw's free-kick was fortunately headed straight at Robles. In comparison, Everton seemed to have been given bromide in their half-time cuppas as they lacked the energy and desire that was so evident before the break. Forshaw was replaced bu Guedioura before the hour mark. Koeman's response to Everton's poor showing was to swap out Gueye for Valencia.
Barkley finally got forward but has shot was always going wide. Valencia showed pace and intent, running the right side channel. Poor defending from Funes Mori led to a Boro corner that Baines had to clear off the line to repel Gibson's header.
Sub Ramierez fouled Lookman with his first touch, Barkley wasting the chance into the two-man wall. Barkley brilliantly put Lookman through but again, Valdes saved a certain goal with that left leg. At the other end, Guedioura lashed a fearsome shot over Robles and the bar. The next change was Lennon for Lookman, with a quarter of the game remaining.
Ramirez shrugged off Schneiderlin and drove forward past impotent Everton defenders but clipped his cross too far wide. Davies, who had been quiet for much of the second half, started to get more involved but looked to be tiring. Nothing seemed to really be working with Boro winning the second half on points, Karana making his final change with 10 minutes left: Negredo off for Gestede.
Funes Mori was again beaten too easily but Guedioura thankfully spooned it well over as the game became disjointed entering the final 5 minutes. Ramirez was booked for treading on Baines but Barkley's cross was too close to Valdes. A strange last sub by Koeman, Barry for Barkley preceded the chance of the game for Boro and the Save of the Century by Robles, a fantastic one-armed reach to push over a bullet header from Ramirez that was goalbound all day long.
Everton built an attack in the last minute but it was just too slow, Baines's cross evading Lukaku. Baines tried a Barkley backheel that Valencia did not anticipate, Barry picked out Valencia but his pullback to Lukaku led to Everton's second and final corner that came to nothing in 3 mins of time added on.
The match ended in torrential freezing rain, a disappointing scoreline for the very vocal travelling troupe from Merseyside, and two points dropped in pursuit of the top six.
Middlesbrough: Valdes, Chambers, Bernardo, Gibson, Da Silva, De Roon, Clayton [Y:31'], Forshaw (58'Guedioura), Traore, Negredo (82' Gestede), Stuani (66' Ramirez).
Subs not Used: Ayala, Leadbitter, Guzan, Downing.
Everton: Robles, Baines, Williams, Funes Mori, Coleman, Schneiderlin, Gueye (62' Valencia), Davies, Barkley (87' Barry), Lookman (73' Lennon), Lukaku.
Subs: Stekelenburg, Jagielka, Holgate, Koné.
Referee: Mike Dean
From my seat: Middlesbrough (A)
A trip to Boro is never the most salubrious but when you get the complete English winter in one day it is even less appealing. Rain, sleet, snow, strong wind and freezing cold makes you wonder if the trip up was the best decision. Both sets of fans were rowdy before kick-off suggesting all that effort was necessary against the elements. As the team as announced seemed to find favour with everyone and we looked forward to another decent show.
We were changed into our third kit for the game and so the ‘All Blacks’ kicked off. It soon became clear that this was going to be a slog as Boro looked to keep the back door shut and break quickly this allowed us to have the ball and pass it about but getting into the final third was proving difficult. We had to wait some twenty minutes for a ball forward for Lukaku materialised when Davies threaded one but alas as the Belgian turned on the power and pace he fell over! Looked like a soaking wet pitch and wrong studs.
Half-hour mark and Tom Davies threads another into Lukaku’s path and he is one on one with the keeper but he shot straight at him and the ball cannoned away. I could not help but wonder why after drawing the keeper out he didn’t try a chip as he was going down or a nudge to the right and a side-foot home. Still it’s easy from the stands isn’t it?
Until half time the game became a cup tie as slick passing turned to hoof’s, tackling varied from strong too weak as both teams strived to combat each other and the elements the only constant being that neither side could work anything in the final third although Lookman did have three ‘not bad’ chances but on each occasion he took too long and was crowded out before damage could be done. The half time whistle sounded with the game at a bit of a mid-field deadlock.
Half-time: 0-0 and the chat centred on the weather and Lukaku’s miss.
We made no changes in personnel at the break but I noticed that Davies had swopped roles with Barkley. Right from the off Boro attacked and we gave away a free kick on the edge of the box and ex Blue Forshaw took the kick which caused havoc in the box but Joel came to our rescue when he grabbed the ball in the middle of the scrum. Without having a lot to do Joel was competent in all that was asked of him and his catching from crosses was the stuff confidence is made of.
If anything as the weather got worse certainly colder so Boro turned up the heat and on the hour mark brought on debutant Guedioura for Forshaw to add another attack minded player to the mix but we had got more into our stride and the game became end to end again but the manager on sixty two mins took off the ineffectual Gana but no like for like change as Valencia was the choice and Schneiderlin went in front of the back four. Despite the changes the game stayed end to end but now with a cup tie feel as both teams slugged it out.
Around the seventy minute mark a couple of things happened for us, firstly Barkley threaded through a peach of a pass that put Lookman in one on one alas he did a Rom and took the ball in and fired straight at keeper who again had the ball bounce off him and cannon away. Just after that the youngster was hooked and Lennon made an appearance. The cup tie feel both on the pitch and in the stands persisted. Tackles became stronger, free kicks more regular and just scraps for chances with neither side looking capable of getting a foot on the ball and engineering chances on any sort of basis. However with about three minutes to go the Boro right back got down the line and crossed at pace, the ball was met by another Boro substitute Gestede flush on the forehead and but for some lightening reflexes from Joel to get the effort over the bar it would have been a very long journey home. The corner was cleared.
The game was played out with both teams taking a point but right on the whistle Tom Davies wellied the ball away in anger the only player to show his thoughts on the result. The lad had another standout game both in his first half role being in the hole behind Rom then second half the right hand side of the three. It was good to see such commitment I hope it spreads through the squad.
MotM – Davies or Robles
Overall an all action game that ended in a fair result. A couple of things I noticed, firstly Gana seemed ill at ease with himself and was anything but the all action dynamo pre AFCON; secondly, when we signed Lookman I read he was very skilful and lightening quick. His skill is there with fast feet but I have yet to see blistering pace to leave a marker for dead. Early days I know but I hope that part of his game turns up and sooner the better.
Still plenty of points to play for but our away form needs to improve so all in all can they address these deficiencies plus have some one on one finishing practice while in the warm weather of Dubai. Incidentally do you agree with these sunshine jollies for the players or do you view them as a reward for failure, whatever I hope they come back invigorated and leap forward in confidence and cause us to knock the dust off passports.
See you in a fortnight and off we go again.
UP THE BLUES
I'm quite an impatient person and I was more than ready to go by the time Ritchie rolled up about 15 minutes late. "I need a coffee...and we need to get petrol". In an effort to speed things along I said "just nip into the Shell garage...they've got a Costa machine in there" as we got closer to the Shell garage Ritchie decided "I prefer McDonald's coffee so we'll go there". So on we detoured to McDonald's, only McDonald's is by Sainsbury's and at that time Joe Public are doing their weekly shop...many follow that up with a McDonald's Drive Thru. We queued for quite some time for a single coffee....and then went to the garage with the Costa machine. As you can tell, I stayed calm, happy and patient throughout.
The bigger picture of course was that it didn't really matter and as we got closer to Middlesbrough in plenty of time for the match I became grateful Ritchie decided to drive. One of the fella's who sits behind us in the Gwladys Street End is from Middlesbrough and he tipped me off to park at the cinema. This we did, putting money into the Pay & Display machine. It was only once I'd paid that a lady told me that you didn't have to pay at the weekend. "I tried getting to you before you put the money in but I was too late" she said.
The pub, Dr Browns, was only across the road from the cinema so we had a quick drink in there before moving on to a nice little pub called the Medicine Bar and caught the last 30 minutes of Arsenal vs Hull City. We then made the relatively short stroll to the Riverside Stadium in wet and windy conditions - not ideal for playing at all. Perhaps this had some bearing of the atrocity of the game we were about to witness.
Ronald Koeman went with four at the back and couldn't resist the urge to put Idrissa Gueye back into the team. Ademola Lookman was given another opportunity to shine. Tom Davies and Ross Barkley were also involved. Everton academy product Adam Foreshaw featured for the hosts.
Despite a good effort to generate atmosphere by the Middlesbrough supporters behind the goal, the game never got going. The headlines may well go to Joel Robles excellent late save from Rudy Gestede's header, however the real story, despite the dross we (and Middlesbrough) served up, was our wastage of presentable opportunities which on another day would have ensured another satisfying win.
You back Romelu Lukaku to put away the sort of chance he missed every time, but somehow he never quite seemed set for it and Victor Valdes surprisingly kept it out. The other good chances all fell to Ademola Lookman, who will be disappointed not to have converted from at least one of his four opportunities. Two fell in quick succession, one he hit the side netting with, and the last one in the second half he took perhaps a bit too long and allowed Victor Valdes to make the save.
Footballers often learn the hard way. I remember when David Moyes first gave Seamus Coleman a run of games at right back, Seamus made quite a few defensive mistakes but remained in the team, as this is the only way to learn from mistakes. You can't learn if you're not in the team. The same will probably happen with Ademola, and you have to afford young players that luxury of learning from mistakes in the team. The next time Ademola has them chances he might take them differently and with a better outcome. It's frustrating in the interim but worthwhile in the long run.
We failed to make any significant in-roads as we had a stab at winning the game late on. Nothing was happening and Ritchie and I made a break for it with a minute or two of injury time still remaining. It proved to be a good decision as we were back in the car, out of the car park and back on the road before most of the match traffic. It was good to get away from that darn awful game. Ritchie and I then re-lived our youth in Headingley for the evening - we were both students around them parts back in the day and it was good to reminisce about the old days.
Overall, a terrible game but not the worst result. It's a shame to lose ground on the top six, but the reality is seventh is the best we can achieve this term in my opinion. Next season we'll do better. I'm confident of that.
Robles: Made a crucial late save and showed good command of his penalty area. 7
Baines: Did OK. 6
Williams and Funes Mori: Both were poor. Ashley WIlliams doesn't talk enough for my liking and Ramiro Funes Mori always has a mistake in him I feel. Alvaro Negrado dominated Funes Mori throughout. Both need to improve in my opinion. 5
Coleman: Did OK. 6
Gueye: He's always good in the tackle but he really needs to up his game from a creative aspect. Perhaps Gareth Barry would have represented a better starting choice in this one as we could have lived a bit without Gueye's tenacity if replaced by the increased dynamism from Gareth Barry. What of James McCarthy's non-inclusion by the way? Is he injured again? 5
Schneiderlin: Impressive. He seems to have hit the ground running. 7
Davies: He's doing ever so well particularly at his age. He's not intimidated by anything. His legs had gone by the end of the game but he stood up to the task well throughout. 7
Barkley: He had a good game and was always the one most likely to carve out an opportunity. His ability to find space impresses me. If you watch him closely you will see his movement is very good. He's in good form, let's hope he can keep this up. My man of the match. 7
Lookman: Missed some good opportunities, but you've got to learn the hard way. 5
Lukaku: Had a pretty poor game. He was rather service-starved, but didn't really put himself about enough, and missed his golden opportunity. 5
Valencia (for Gueye): Didn't really get going. 5
Lennon (for Lookman): Didn't really get involved enough. 5
Barry (for Barkley): Made a reasonable stab at getting into the game in limited time. Should have started. 6
Everton make the trip to the Riverside for a Premier League game for the first time in just over eight years as they take on relegation-threatened Middlesbrough.
The Blues are looking to extend their recent unbeaten run in the Premier League to eight games which should maintain the pressure on the top six and keep alive the threat of closing further what was a nine-point gap. Indeed, Everton come into the weekend sitting just seven points off the Champions League places with 14 games left and 42 points up for grabs.
Based on his latest comments to the print media, Ronald Koeman is remaining realistic while allowing himself to see opportunity if Everton can keep winning and the sides above them stumble but it's matches like this weekend's trip to the Riverside Stadium that are going to be key to his team's chances.
The Blues have dropped vital points at the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford and Southampton — had they taken a draw in those four games, they would be sitting just one point behind Manchester United, the current occupants of sixth place — but if they can start collecting wins against bottom-half sides between now and the end of the season, then a finish in the European places is not out of the question.
“Everything's possible,” the Dutchman said in his press conference yesterday when asked whether he thought Everton could sneak into the top four by the end of the season. “Everybody knows the Premier League is so tough. It's not about the opponent that you need to play.
“Look at Hull — they played Man United away, they played Liverpool at home and they have four points out of that. Every game is difficult and maybe our game this Saturday is maybe more difficult than Tottenham away.
“In my experience in the Premier League is sometimes you get more points from playing top-six teams than against teams that are fighting relegation. I won't make the mistake of thinking this weekend is different because it's a really tough one.
“It's all about yourself. The best way to be successful is always the [next] game; don't look further on because it's not important. What's important is now, who we play now.
“It's a difficult one because they're fighting for the points to stay in the Premier League and we know they can be really tough.”
Middlesbrough may have won just four league games since they returned to the top flight and sit just two points above the relegation zone as a result but, as Spurs found out last weekend, they can very tough to beat because they don't concede many goals.
Indeed, they have the same defensive record as Everton coming into this weekend's meeting having let in 14 less than the next best defence among their rivals to beat the drop. Since losing 3-0 at home to Liverpool in mid-December, they've conceded at a rate of one goal a game at the Riverside, which suggests that, just as was the case at Crystal Palace and Stoke recently, Koeman's men will face a team that is difficult to break down.
As the Reds and West Ham have shown, however, if you can get at them early and score within the first half-hour or so, then your task becomes that much easier. In that respect, avoiding the early lapses that almost allowed Christian Benteke to head Palace ahead after eight minutes last month or the one that gifted Peter Crouch the chance to score his 100th goal around the same point of the game at the bet365 Stadium will be crucial for Everton's chances.
Encouragingly for the Toffees, if they can get off the mark first, Boro don't score many either — their return of 19 goals is the lowest in the Premier League and almost a third of them have been scored by Alvaro Negredo.
Once again, Evertonian eyes will be on the team sheet when it is announced an hour before kick off because, with the manager having options at his disposal in all areas of the pitch, there could be more changes to the starting XI, particularly in midfield.
Idrissa Gueye will be fully rested following his return from Africa Cup of Nations duty and Tom Davies will be champing at the bit to start but both will have to battle their way past the trio that started last Saturday. Rumours that James McCarthy was forced off against Bournemouth last weekend with a recurrence of his hamstring injury have not been substantiated and his fitness did not come up in the manager's presser but he will have done his chances of being selected again no harm with an assist and goal in the 6-3 win.
Morgan Schneiderlin, meanwhile, offered plenty of evidence to suggest that he could become a vital cog in the Blues' machine with his versatility and ability to move the ball around in the centre of the park.
In defence, a return to the back three system that Koeman dispensed with for all but the last 10 minutes against Bournemouth is on the cards, which could mean a recall for Mason Holgate. Further forward, after being handed his full debut and showing some wonderful moments going forward, Ademola Lookman will likely drop back to the bench, with Kevin Mirallas the probable beneficiary.
Kick-off: 3pm, Saturday 11 February 2017
Referee: Mike Dean
Last Time: Middlesbrough 0 - 1 Everton (26 December 2008)
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Holgate, Williams, Funes Mori, Coleman, Baines, Schneiderlin, Gueye, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku.