Fulham 1 - 3 Everton

As Evertonians dare to dream of a return to European competition next season, the importance of depth of squad has dominated both the discussion and Roberto Martinez's thinking as he outlines his summer team-building plans. It's clear, though, that it's going to take the collective efforts of his current roster of players and not just a set starting XI to achieve a feat that had looked beyond them five Premier League games ago, namely Champions League qualification.

Everton's victory at Craven Cottage this afternoon, their fifth straight in the League, was the perfect illustration. Martinez kept faith with the side that had so comprehensively beaten Newcastle last Tuesday but it was three players who didn't feature in the rout at St James' Park (Steven Naismith played eight minutes as a late substitute for Ross Barkley but the game was won by then) who combined to deliver the inspiration and impetus to deliver three priceless points that bring the Blues closer to Arsenal's heels in the race for fourth place.

Yet, as if to further emphasise the point, this contest against the bottom club perhaps turned on two saves by Tim Howard shortly after Fulham had clawed their way back to parity with an excellent goal by Ashkan Dejagah. The Iranian's 71s-minute strike was one of those moments where the Blues could have faltered and allowed the match to slip away but the American's denial of first John Heitinga and then Pajtim Kasami as the clock ticked into the final quarter of an hour provided the platform for Everton to go on and win comfortably in the end.

That 3-1 scoreline in Everton's favour seemed a world away at half time after 45 turgid minutes in which Fulham were the dominant team in terms of chances if not in possession. Everton managed just three efforts on goal and, from memory, only two were on target: one a shot by Barkley that David Stockdale in the home side's goal caught comfortably and the other a low shot by Gerard Deulofeu at the end of a selfish run that was also fairly routine for the 'keeper.

At the other end, James McCarthy's terrific lunging tackle blocked Kieran Richardson's drive in the 13th minute and Howard had to be alert to deny the same player after he'd been slipped in neatly by teenage debutant Moussa Dembele. Howard would also have to pull off his best moment of the half with 26 minutes gone when he palmed Lewis Holtby's header over his crossbar for a corner before closing out the half with another low save from Dembele's far-post header.

In stark contrast to the Newcastle game, the Blues seemed unable to find any space in the face of an effective pressing game employed by Felix Magath's team and everything about the performance just felt flat and uninspired. Fulham's high-pressure tactics threatened on a couple of occasions to force a crucial error from either John Stones or Sylvain Distin, the Frenchman prompted into a succession of sliced balls down the left flank that could only find touch before he was eventually caught dithering on the ball but he managed to get back and snuff out the ensuing attack.

When they were able to pick their way through Fulham, Everton were let down by some fairly predictable and over-elaborate stuff from Deulofeu whose insistence on taking Jon Arne Riise on on the outside instead of mixing it up by cutting infield made him fairly easy to deal with. One electrifying moment from the Spaniard towards the end of the half created an opening for a teasing cross but neither Romelu Lukaku nor Barkley had gambled in the six-yard box and the ball flashed across the face of goal.

Barkley had not been expected to complete the first 45 minutes after taking a knock to his foot that had him hobbling badly for a few minutes before he seemed to have the complaint off but he did not reappear for the second half, his place in the team taken by Naismith. While, presumably, an enforced change, Naismith's introduction provided an instant source of movement and energy in the final third and that, combined with Everton's increased tempo after the restart, led to the game's opening goal in the 50th minute.

A surging run out of defence by Stones, one of many the teenage prodigy would make over the course of the game thanks to Martinez's effective tactic of dropping McCarthy and Gareth Barry into covering central defensive positions while Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman pushed high down the flanks, ended with Deulofeu forcing a corner off Riise on the Blues' right. Baines' kick was headed out by Richardson but only as far as Naismith lurking near the edge of the penalty area and when his volleyed shot came off the heel of William Kvist, Stockdale couldn't help but divert the ball into his own net.

Given Fulham's need for points and the tenacity they had shown throughout the game, it was clear that Everton would need a second goal. Baines, who it should be said was uncharacteristically poor for most of the game, should have provided it from a sublime reverse pass by Naismith but his clip across goal was neither a shot nor a pass to Lukaku and it bounced harmlessly past the far post. He then got in the way of Deulofeu as he tried to waltz through with dazzling feet a few minutes later and Lukaku came very close to scoring after a determined run but Stockdale saved well with his foot.

Fulham's equaliser would come nine minutes later from a lively substitute of their own. Dejagah cut in from the left, took full advantage of McCarthy losing his footing in front of him and smashed an Exocet into the top corner of Howard's goal. Everton's players confronted referee Anthony Taylor complaining about Heitinga's mauling of Naismith at the beginning of the move that led to the goal and their indignation might have turned to dejection had Howard not intervened with a one-handed save to stop the Dutch defender's far-post header in the 76th minute and then another stop with his legs to keep out Kasami as Fulham enjoyed a purple patch.

Martinez, who had earlier introduced Kevin Mirallas for the largely ineffective Osman, wrested the initiative back by throwing Aiden McGeady on for Deulofeu and the two subs combined brilliantly for the goal that restored Everton's lead. McGeady's defence-splitting ball was perfectly-weighted for Mirallas to take in stride and then pick his spot to place it past Stockdale. 2-1, and Fulham's resistance had been broken.

Lukaku's pass put Naismith in on goal but Stocksdale was on hand to make the save but the goalkeeper was completely stranded when Mirallas went down under the attentions of two defenders and the ball broke to Baines in space in the box. He found Naismith with a square pass and the Scot took one touch before stabbing it into the corner of the goal to make it 3-1.

The ex-Rangers man almost capped a fine display with a second but drove his shot off the base of the post in the closing stages, the Blues denied the icing on the cake and extra padding to their goal difference as they narrowed the gap between themselves and Arsenal in the top five of the table.

So, five straight Premier League wins (a feat achieved just once before in the Premier League era), two away from home in potentially tricky fixtures at St James' Park and Craven Cottage, and Everton genuinely have the look of a team that can sneak into the Champions League qualification places this season. For the second time in a week, they illustrated succinctly that football is a game played over 90 minutes, a good thing, too, because had their lacklustre first-half showing bled into the second period, they almost certainly would not have won this game.

That they did was credit to Naismith, who had the look of a one-dimensional journeyman type last season under David Moyes but who is now emerging as a player who can change matches with his industry, movement and goals, and to Martinez whose second-half changes inspired another handsome win.

Now, of course, the focus shifts to an encounter next weekend that could have massive ramifications for Everton's immediate and long-term future. Arsenal come to Goodison just four points above us having played a game more. Despite the Gunners' more attractive run-in, victory for the Blues would slash the lead to one point and put finishing in the Champions League spots in their own hands. With every win, that long-elusive dream inches closer and as long as Martinez's men continue to exhibit the drive and the winning mentality they have exhibited in their last five games, it could well happen.

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Aman Kanji
261 Posted 31/03/2014 at 08:39:35
The first half was ONLY 'poor' in some people's eyes due to the fact that Fulham were constantly in our faces, chasing every ball down or crowding us out... from the first to 45th. We had some good play and good touches, but just couldn't settle. Standard tactic for a team fighting relegation.

I think we planned for it and soaked it up... They would tire in the second half, which is when we'd pick them off. We don't have to win games in the first half... Tactics / strategy does come into it. Goal difference is improving, our confidence & self belief is growing and some 'leaders' are showing themselves...

MotM: McCarthy just thwarted by Howard.

Arsenal will be a tough game. They'll pressurise from first minute. Midfield battle with Arteta! Would love to see a 2-0 win but will probably end up 2-2.

Jim Bennings
372 Posted 31/03/2014 at 20:15:06
Let's be really honest about things here.

Was the game yesterday away to Fulham ever going to be a easy stroll in the park?.. Away from home against a team fighting for their Premier League status??.

After witnessing Crystal Palace battle tooth and nail for a victory at home to Chelsea the day before, I knew that we were going to be in for more of the same at Craven Cottage, a ground where we have had some poor results over the years.

To win that match on the back of the Newcastle win was fantastic.

The substitutions from Martinez were once again inspired and Naismith again lives up to his 'unstylish Tim Cahill' status in my eye's.

Every time this guy comes on or starts I cannot help but love the effort and the actual positions he gets himself in. Naismith always seems to be in a goalscoring position and whatever people say about his lack of natural ability, he is always likely to score goals.

I also feel McGeady is coming to something like the players I knew we were getting, looks very confident and is a safe bet to take a full back on and get quality balls forward.

It all sets up the Arsenal game for a phenomenal day at Goodison Park.
I still believe 4th is Arsenal's to throw away but we can really put pressure on them if we beat them.

We have not beaten the Gunners since March 2007, that is something that we have to change and records are there to be broken..

I

Barry Stevens
448 Posted 01/04/2014 at 07:44:16
Another win. On we roll. Not only that, but some stuff today that showed how good Stones could be. The ability to bring the ball out from the back from centre half is rare in the Premier League. Looked at ease when doing so today.

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