Everton's flying start to 2012-13, together with and an 11-match unbeaten run in the Premier League that stretched all the way back to March, came to a shuddering halt at the Hawthorns this afternoon as West Bromwich Albion grabbed two simple second-half goals to consolidate their own impressive beginning to the new campaign.
The Blues traveled down the M6 for the second time in a week riding an unusually high crest of optimism after consecutive victories over Manchester United, Aston Villa and Leyton Orient and the climactic conclusion last night of what was about as successful a transfer window as most supporters could have asked for.
Unfortunately, the enterprising and incisive pattern established in those opening matches faltered in this second away game of the campaign with a flat and disjointed performance that never hit the heights the large traveling contingent had hoped for.
In truth, the Blues never seemed to really recover from the disruption to their early rhythm caused by the departure of Darron Gibson after just 17 minutes through injury. The midfielder, a veritable lucky charm in the Premier League having not lost any of the previous 28 games in which he's played, was the conduit for much of Everton's early, easy possession game. And though, the cutting edge was clearly missing in a fairly even first half that was characterised by a general lack of cohesion in moving the ball from defence to attack, Moyes's side were confident enough, no doubt, of their ability to press and score later in the game.
Gibson left the field gingerly with an apparent muscle strain, though, and was replaced by Tony Hibbert. Phil Neville moved up from right back to central midfield but the skipper just didn't bring the same composure or assured link-up play as the Irishman and Everton struggled to create things for the bulk of the afternoon.
The best of Everton's chances all seemed to come from headers in the first half; Nikica Jelavić was off target reaching for two set-piece chances and Marouane Fellaini's looping effort off Hibbert's deep cross was as close as they came before the break as it looped agonisingly onto the roof of the net.
But it was the home side, who had been forced to stay in their shell for the first half hour or so, who might have gone into the interval ahead were not for the intervention of, first, the crossbar and then Tim Howard. Liam Ridgewell picked out Shane Long with a pin-point left-wing cross that the Irish striker powered off the face of the bar in the 29th minute, before, on the stroke of half time, James Morrisson found himself in acres of space behind the visitors' defence but, having turned Sylvain Distin, he was denied by a terrific one-handed stop by Howard.
As they had done in the first period, Everton started the second half the stronger side, with Leighton Baines' shot at the end of a nice move deflecting behind. On the next attack, Fellaini collected Jelavić's chest forward with his own neat chest control to take him past the tight attentions of Jonas Olsson but he dragged his shot wide and a good chance went begging.
With his side seemingly getting closer to making the breakthrough, Moyes elected to bring on Kevin Mirallas in place of Steven Naismith who had had a mixed afternoon on the Blues' right flank and the Belgian made an almost immediate impact. Charging in from the right near the byline after collecting a return ball from Leon Osman, the no.11 delivered a low cross that found Fellaini completely open at the back post but despite having all the time he needed to set himself and pick his spot, he skied an awful left-footer into the stand. In truth, he never looked like he had the confidence to bury the chance when he should at least have hit the target and it more or less summed up his and Everton's strangely off-key afternoon.
A minute later, Steve Clarke's own second-half change, Peter Odemwingie, romped down the left wing and pinged a low cross in ahead of Phil Jagielka and Long was on hand to easily convert from close range to break the deadlock.
Everton didn't really recover after that and some of the more important players started to lose their cool a little. Neville and Fellaini picked up silly bookings for unnecessary fouls and the captain was removed with 17 minutes to go in favour of Victor Anichebe as Moyes increased his attacking options searching for an equaliser.
With WBA growing in confidence, though, the Blues scuppered their chances of getting something from the game with poor work in their own half. Fellaini sold Baines short with a pass that the latter managed to move on to Osman but he was dispossessed and Youssuf Mulumbu tested Howard again with a powerful drive from 20 yards that the American palmed over the bar.
From the resulting corner, Howard failed to impose himself sufficiently to get past an impeding opponent and his attempted punch arrived too late to prevent McAuley from heading unchallenged and emphatically into the net to make it 2-0.
Everton's chances of mounting a dramatic rescue would be enhanced by five minutes of stoppage time but they ultimately rested and then foundered on a moment in the 89th minute. Jagielka fired a cross-cum-shot across the face of the West Brom goal and the ball squirmed through to Fellaini at the back post. The Belgian effected a somewhat lackadaisical backheel, though, and the opportunity evaporated.
The come-down from the high before this game is obviously a hard one and there will inevitably be fears that some of the frustrations of last season where the team struggled to break down sides that set their stall out to close down the space, press and harry the Blues out of their passing rhythm as West Brom did.
The necessary shift in attitude — the self-belief, the drive, the arrogance — that will transform this Everton side from a top-six to top-eight side looking at the Champions League from the outside to one that will break that glass ceiling just wasn't there today. And Moyes's comments after the game that perhaps he should have held off on introducing Mirallas and held on to parity are a little concerning in that regard.
The decision to replace Gibson with Neville in midfield very much followed the Moyes "playbook" but, in hindsight, Fellaini should have dropped back and Mirallas should probably have come on earlier to play behind Jelavić up front. Fellaini battled against West Brom's big defenders and a niggly referee in the form of Jon Moss and never really looked comfortable in the striker role.
That was underscored by his poor execution in front of goal as well but it would be wrong to lay the blame with the big Belgian because it was very much a collective "bad day at the office." Steven Pienaar began brightly but suffered from over-elaboration in the final third and he faded as the game progressed and Mirallas too became far less effective when he was switched to the left flank for the closing stages. If you had to pick a man of the match in Blue, perhaps Osman would swing it with a quietly effective job of linking up play in central midfield.
Ultimately, though the performance and result were poor, it's early enough that mistakes and lessons can be learned and, of course, six points from the first nine is not a bad return. The Baggies are well organised and physical and were a tough prospect coming into this game, even without Romelu Lukaku who missed out through injury, so the defeat is by no means a disgrace.
The two-week international break will give the side time to regroup and use the occasion of the Newcastle game back at Goodison to get their momentum back straight away. Hopefully by then, new signing Vidas Odjidja-Ofoe — the arrival of whom was the first thought that came to mind when Gibson hobbled off — will be clear to play and Moyes can continue moulding this side into something that can take on all comers, home or away.
Player Ratings: Howard 7, Neville 6 (Anichebe 6), Jagielka 6, Distin 7, Baines 7, Gibson 7 (Hibbert 7), Osman 7*, Naismith 6 (Mirallas 7), Pienaar 6, Fellaini 6, Jelavić 6
With a virtually fully-fit squad the manager has
chosen to stick with the same starting XI who have won the last two league games to put Everton in 3rd place at the start.
The Blues started pressing pretty much from the start, with Steven Pienaar having a shot blocked, although Fellaini was lucky not to be called for a clumsy tackle. Pienaar was fouled and appeared to injure his ankle and hobbled off, but came back on eventually.
A clear tackle from behind on Jelavić in the WBA area was not given as a penalty and there was worse news when Gibson pulled up with what looked like a groin injury after just 17 minutes. David Moyes selected Hibbert to replace him, rather than taking the more attacking option of Kevin Mirallas, with Neville moving into midfield instead.
Losing Gibson was a massive blow and Everton then got a real fright when Ridgeway's cross was headed in by Long and smacked the bar with Howard beaten. Then it was Everton's chance to threaten, Fellaini coming close with his header.
Pienaar was having problems finding his man, and put Hibbert into trouble with a horrible pass that saw Hibbert yellow carded for his foul on Fortune. Fellaini then got a warning for his persistent fouling. West Brom then came very close to scoring, and it needed a desperation save from Howard off Morrison to keep the scorecard clean.
Yacob then fouled Naismith but on the next attack, Pienaar set up Jelavić but he was flagged for offsite. 0 - 0 at the break.
Reid went in the book after the break, while some silly nonsense transpired over white or blue tape on Fellaini's socks! Reid came close for the home side as Everton struggled to take command.
Baines did well to win a corner and Jelavić gave Fellaini the opportunity to turn and shoot but he could not keep his shot on target. At the other end, Osman gave away a dangerous free-kick somewhat needlessly that Dorrans executed poorly and he was switched for Odemwinge.
Everton played some better joined-up stuff with patient build-up down the left but the move ended when play switched and Hibbert's cross was too long. The hour-mark approached and David Moyes took the opportunity to bring on Kevin Mirallas for Steven Naismith and something by way of a fresh spark. But it was West Brom who pressed and won a corner that was touched away by Osman, setting up a break down the right with Mirallas that ended in an open goal for Fellaini that he totally shanked! A shocking miss!
And they paid the price at the other end, when Long got in front of Distin and scored off a good low cross from Odemwinge, Everton were stunned, while West Brom got a surge of life.
Mirallas made a good solo run but the power was taken out of his shot. Neville went in the book for a foul on Mulumbu, giving away a set-piece that was thankfully wasted as the Blues tried to regroup and mount their offence. But the next attack again broke down and Fellaini's lazy clip earned him his inevitable yellow card, Everton's fourth.
As the introduction of Mirallas had not worked, Moyes decided it was time for Super-Sub Anichebe to enter the fray in place of Captain Phil Neville, with less than 20 minutes remaining.
Long looked to have the beating of Distin chasing a forward ball but the big man was imperious and Long then went off as West Brom took a corner that caused some trouble but ended up with Morrison blasting over. Some desperate blocks by Baggies defenders thwarted first Pienaar then Fellaini as the Blues pressed to get forward. But it was the home side who came close with Yacob taking a poke. Mulumbu was next to take a shot at Howard as Everton looked less and less likely to score.
And indeed from a corner McAuley powered in a header that will have Moyes seething, a Baggie clearly impeding Howard on his line.
Somehow, Fellaini again fluffed his lines with the goal gaping as a cross came in and he backheeled it instead of burying it. A really bad day at the office for the Big Belgian.
Everton tried to force a recovery but it was really too little too late, Moyes making arguably the wrong decisions that failed to build on a huge wave of feelgood positivity going into this match.
Everton back down to earth with a bang after what looked to be a wonderful start to the season and a very promising end to the transfer window.
With the transfer window closed — not without some late drama at Goodison Park — and coveted stars like Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini still safe in the Royal Blue bosom, Everton travel back to the Midlands to take on West Bromwich Albion a week after taking apart Aston Villa on their own turf.
David Moyes had already managed to add Costa Rican left-back Bryan Oviedo and teenage winger Matthew Kennedy on deadline day before the last-breaking news that the Club had struck a season-long loan deal with Club Brugge for Belgian international, taking to six the total number of incoming transfers after the prior arrivals of Steven Naismith, Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas.
The 23 year-old defensive midfielder's move won't be done and dusted until Everton receive clearance from FIFA in the coming days but the announcement of his impending arrival will have added one more shot in the arm to a team — not to mention its fans — that is humming right now with potential and anticipation.
Moyes takes his side's 100% record in all three games so far this season to the Hawthorns to take on a WBA side who have made a good start to the new campaign themselves. A comprehensive opening-day victory over Liverpool, followed by a draw at Tottenham and a League Cup win at Yeovil mean that Steve Clark's men will also be full of confidence for this one.
While Moyes was in London attending the hearing for Oviedo's work permit, Steve Round told reporters at Finch Farm that the Blues have a fully-fit squad for this weekend and that will give the manager a nice selection problem, not least because of the goalscoring form of Fellaini and Mirallas.
There was a fluidity to Everton's play last weekend that allowed the Belgian to move in and out of central midfield at Villa Park last weekend and it will be interesting to see whether Moyes drops Fellaini back a little alongside Darron Gibson and uses Mirallas behind Nikica Jelavić or plays Mirallas out wide in place of Steven Naismith or finds some other combination to use all four of these in-form, more attacking players at once.
At the back, John Heitinga will be champing at the bit to make his first start in the Premier League but that might depend on the fitness and energy levels of Sylvain Distin. At right back, meanwhile, Tony Hibbert's neck strain appears to have cleared up so Phil Neville's hamstring tweak against Leyton Orient in midweek might not necessitate Seámus Coleman continuing in what was his natural position before he came to Everton, but Moyes will make late checks before he decides.
For the hosts, arguably their biggest threat, loan striker Romelu Lukaku, could miss out after picking up an ankle strain and pacey forward Peter Odemwingie is also a doubt with a thigh strain.
There is no doubt that a third successive League win would be the perfect platform to take into the international break and it would certainly provide another statement of Everton's intent this season. With the team already hitting high gear, the most recent acquisitions will only intensify the belief that this team should fear no one in their quest to break into the top four this season.
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