Everton 3 - 2 Swansea City
Everton's Champions League flame is still flickering after their eighth home win on the bounce in all competitions but at a time of the campaign when they need to be kicking into high gear, this was arguably a case of winning despite not performing at your best.
One of the key frustrations of Roberto Martinez's first season in charge has been his team's inability to press home their superiority in some matches and score the goals needed to earn the points their displays have often deserved; today, they ceded their usual dominance of the ball – as much through their opponents' will and tenacity as their own raggedness in possession – but capitalised on their best spell in the game to build a two-goal cushion that would prove crucial in the final reckoning.
Swansea, meanwhile, produced a performance that belied their position hovering dangerously above the relegation zone and left Goodison Park as one of the few teams to have outplayed Everton on their own turf this season. They also left Merseyside with another defeat, thwarted by a combination of Tim Howard and timid finishing, while the Blues moved into fifth place, their European hopes enhanced with their third consective victory in the League.
Gary Monk has inherited the now-established tradition of passing and possession football instilled in Swansea City by Martinez when he was manager of the South Wales side and, as was the case even with an under-strength side in the FA Cup last month, they came to Goodison determined to dominate the ball.
The half-time statistics would underscore their success in effectively beating Everton at the same game in the first 45 minutes as they enjoyed 58% of the possession, out-shot their hosts 10 to two and restricted the Blues to just one shot on target.
That solitary effort, a 20th-minute penalty by Leighton Baines, was crucial, though, and it should have been the launchpad for a comfortable home victory. Even at 3-1, though, the Blues were never truly at ease, with the Swans able to bear down on the back four far too often for comfort over the course of the 90 minutes.
Again, the Welsh side deserved credit for their industry and their refusal to be overawed by superior opposition but Everton were often the architects of their own problems. As early as the first minute, a slack pass by James McCarthy handed Wilfried Bony an early chance but, thankfully, he fired wide and Swansea's pressure on the Blues' back line had the home faithful fearing further self-inflicted trouble as the game wore on.
Once they had settled into something of a rhythm, however, Everton looked quite useful going forward, particularly with Ross Barkley looking lively at times in the central role behind Romelu Lukaku and Aiden McGeady offering trickery and a willingness to take his man on on the flanks.
And things clicked nicely in the eighth minute when Seamus Coleman received a neat return ball from Lukaku and centred invitingly for Barkley but the young midfielder miscued in front of goal and his effort sliced away towards the corner flag.
Barkley atoned for the miss 11 minutes later, though, when he raced into space to collect John Stones' raking ball forward, surged towards the penalty box and, with a clever step-over, drew a clumsy foul from Chico Flores. Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot and Leighton Baines calmly converted what was only Everton's second penalty in the League this season to make it 1-0.
Swansea weren't unduly ruffled, though, and they responded by upping the pressure on Everton a little. Angel Rangel sneaked in behind Gareth Barry to collect Pablo Hernandez's pass and cross low to the Everton six-yard box but Jose Canas volleyed Stones' attempted clearance well wide from a central position.
It would prove to be a signal of intent, though, because six minutes later, the Swans were level. Wayne Routledge picked Rangel out superbly in acres of space with a diagonal ball over the top of the Blues' defence and the Catalan took one touch before laying it on a plate for Bony in front of goal from where he couldn't miss.
Monk's side remained in the driving seat for the remainder of the half and might have gone into the interval a goal up had Hernandez had more fortune with a 44th-minute free kick that took a heavy deflection off McCarthy's shoulder and flashed narrowly wide of Howard's right-hand post.
An awful Stones errort aside, where he gifted the ball straight to Routledge but recovered well to close the door on Hernandez, Everton started the second half in much better fashion and by the hour mark had put themselves into what would prove to be an unassailable position.
Lukaku's daisy-cutter and a close-range shot by Distin following a corner, where the defender would surely have scored had he been able to steer it anywhere but straight at Michel Vorm, led the way before the Blues' steadily increasing pressure told.
Lukaku collected McGeady's pass down the channel, kept the ball after almost giving it away, fed it wide to Mirallas and was then on hand in the six-yard box to slide in and stab it emphatically past Vorm to restore the Blues' lead.
Five minutes later, it was 3-1. Bony headed Mirallas' first corner behind but no player in white could get a header on the follow-up set-piece and when it fell to Barkley four yards out, he only had to get a head on it to score his first League goal since his stunning free kick in the reverse fixture against Swansea in December.
Despite their now extended lead, Everton never really looked comfortable, though, their cause not helped by a mystifying inability to keep the ball. Indeed, it was a confoundingly ragged display by Martinez's men in general and had Howard not been at his best or had the visitors been more clinical with their own finishing, they might have stolen at least a point.
Almost all the ingredients for a more typically fluid and tidy Everton display were there but they struggled consistently to keep hold of the ball, finishing the contest having ceded almost 60% of the possession. With McGeady more of a head-down-and-take-the-man-on type of player, there were few interchanges with Baines down the left, Coleman was similarly subdued down the right, which often left the Blues at the mercy of the decision-making or lay-offs of the Belgian duo, Mirallas and Lukaku, which were often off-key.
That meant Swansea saw plenty of the ball and the opportunity to do something usefu with it. Bony popped up completely unmarked in the 63rd minute but was foiled by a nice one-handed save by Howard and the American made another low stop to deny Hernandez after he had wriggled his way past Coleman. Then, Distin got a crucial block on Michu's shot that sent it over the crossbar following an ill-advised throw-out to Mirallas by Howard.
In between, Mirallas himself could have sealed the game when he robbed Davies in the centre circle and raced away towards the Swansea box with no one to beat but the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, he tried to be too cute with the finish when he probably should have gone for power or lower placement and Vorm grabbed it out of the air.
Swansea would have two more good chances before Ashley Williams eventually powered home a stoppage-time header to make it 3-2, the better of which was served up to Hernandez by Jonjo Shelvey who picked him out in oceans of space near the penalty spot but he shot straight at Howard who beat the effort away. Michu would head the other opportunity over from another flighted pass by Shelvey as the Blues' survived.
As Martinez remarked after the match, "You're not going to be able to win fantastically well in every game but you always need to find the margins to win matches," and that was a fair summation of Everton's afternoon. They did find the fine margin to grind out another three vital points to keep a step ahead of Manchester United, put pressure on Spurs and close the gap between themselves and Arsenal in fourth place to eight points.
The concern is, though, they visibly weren't at the top of their game, a theme that has run through their last four games, and they will need to be a lot sharper and a lot more selfish with the ball in the two upcoming trips to Newcastle and Fulham if they are to extend this winning streak to four and then five games.
The Champions League remains a slender hope this season but those next to fixtures will speak volumes for whether or not the Blues can achieve it; take all six points on offer before the Gunners come to town on 6th April and things really could get very interesting indeed. Short of that, 5th place feels like it is Everton's to lose and that would be a very handsome achievement in Roberto's first season in charge.
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478 Posted 23/03/2014 at 00:24:14
518 Posted 23/03/2014 at 10:13:05
Spot on with your take on the game. The team is not playing as well as earlier in the season but are still doing enough to bag the 3 points in the home game.
Champions Leagure is still a long shot but the dream will be kept alive if we take 6 points from our next 2 games.
I can't help but feel that we lost a huge opportunity in the Cup quarterfinal this year: Arsenal are a week team and a win at The Emirates would have set us up with a huge chance of cup glory. Still, two away wins in the coming days could just make things interesting.
520 Posted 23/03/2014 at 10:14:28
We are riding our luck at the moment and I think Jags is a big miss at the back. Swansea's second goal was embarrassing.
532 Posted 23/03/2014 at 10:36:02
I was listening to the Everton radio commentary from the official site. It made me laugh when they suggested Osman never gives the ball away and then proceeded to do exactly that.
Still, the whole team apart from Howard, Distin and Barry seemed to struggle to win and hold onto the ball.
On a positive, McGeady is getting more lively although he had quiet periods too.
535 Posted 23/03/2014 at 10:54:18
538 Posted 23/03/2014 at 11:12:25
BTW all in agreement: Stones finds Barkley with a 'lucky' 60-yard punt, whereas Chelsea, Arsenal, City RS and it's a stunning 60-yard pass. MotD – fucking detestable bastards to a man.
588 Posted 23/03/2014 at 15:19:10
After we play our game in hand on 16 April, we'll have a better idea of where we stand. If the RS are "legitimate title contenders", then we are legitimate CL contenders.
590 Posted 23/03/2014 at 15:27:32
597 Posted 23/03/2014 at 15:42:13
I'm not being negative, just frustrated! I know how good we can be. I've seen it! Hopefully RM can get them firing on cylinders again, because it was a joy to behold.
Blue 'til I die!
604 Posted 23/03/2014 at 16:08:22
605 Posted 23/03/2014 at 16:24:06
I can’t see either Jags or Peanuts being ready until Saturday at the earliest and we may not see them until the Arsenal game.
611 Posted 23/03/2014 at 16:47:05
As for CL I suspect our poor away form may unravel us starting with points dropped this week at Newcastle. Hope I'm wrong but we will have to play slot better than yesterday to put pressure on Arsenal for that 4th spot.
729 Posted 24/03/2014 at 01:18:10
Our 19 year old CB, seemingly short of talent for some genius TW posters, got his head up and clearly played a sublime long ball to Barkley.
Play it out from the back? May I introduce you to Mr. John Stones?
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