The Wembley dream is dead for another year and Everton's painful stretch without a major trophy extends to 20 years thanks to a heavy, if somewhat harsh, 4-1 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.
It was the latest in a series of reality checks meted out to Roberto Martinez's side as this most promising of seasons threatens to peter out in a pall of deja vu, the focus now forced to return to trying to finish best of the rest in the Premier League and securing a place in Europe for next season.
The pre-match talk in the media predictably centred around Arsene Wenger's Gunners as their own prospects for the season tetered on a potential tipping point. Having been deposed as the leaders in the Title race and facing a mountain to climb in the Champions League against Bayern Munich, they needed a big performance and a result to match to keep their hopes of silverware alive.
Thanks to home advantage, the general superiority of their bank balance and players, and a pivotal penalty midway through the second half, they duly answered their critics and dumped Everton out to secure a date at Wembley next month. It was a closer run thing than the yawning gap in the two scores might suggest but few could argue that the better team won.
You couldn't have faulted Everton for optimism, though. The 5,000+ plus who were allowed to make the trip to North London came in full voice and made their presence known in no uncertain terms and Martinez put out arguably the strongest team at his disposal, with the glaring exception of Joel Robles being preferred in goal to Tim Howard. The Spanish 'keeper had been handed the gloves in every previous round of the cup this season so credit Martinez for consistency but the general feeling among Evertonians was that a game of his magnititude demanded the best available options in every part of the field.
Ultimately, while Robles had a jittery afternoon, one almost capped off horrendously with an own goal in the first half, his inclusion had little bearing on the result. The Gunners were able to carve the Blues open on four crucial occasions while, at the other end, good opportunities that might have given Martinez the platform on which to play more defensively were spurned.
Though Everton started brightly and tenaciously, it was Arsenal who scored in only the seventh minute, completely against the run of play and with their first meaningful attack. The usually dependable James McCarthy lost his footing in the middle of his own half and was robbed by Santi Cazorla who quickly surged into the ocean of space in front of him. Tracking the run of the much-maligned Mezut
Ozil, he slid a perfect, defence-splitting ball to the German who side-footed home with his first touch.
The floodgates briefly threatened to open as Everton battled to find their footing, with John Stones failing to clear his lines and Robles having to make a two-fisted save at his near post to deny Sanogo and Steven Pienaar then repeating the young defender's error before being rescued by his 'keeper who made a similar stop a minute later.
The Blues carried a threat on the break, though, and could have been level as early as the 10th minute when the otherwise desperately disappointing Kevin Mirallas sprinted to catch up with a ball bouncing towards the byline and hooked it back into the path of Pienaar. Presumably put off by the impending challenge from Bacary Sagna, the South African didn't make anything like a confident contact and the shot spun off his boot and harmlessly out to the far side of the box.
As they were in the League fixture in December, Everton were confident in possession when they had the ball, but often looked slighly vulnerable when they didn't, which made Robles' propensity to kick the ball long to no effect whatsoever particularly frustrating. Equally annoying was the Blues' reluctance to take the odd speculative shot from outside the box to test Fabianski in the Arsenal goal. Gareth Barry eschewed two such opportunities and when he lost possession in the second instance, Arsenal broke quickly and Robles, flapping at deep cross that would have dropped safely past his goal, somehow batted the ball onto the angle of crossbar and post. That, combined with his woefully erratic kicking and instistance on punching even the most rountine of crosses away, deepened the sense of uncertainty at the back.
Martinez's faith in Ross Barkley would pay dividends just past the half-hour mark, though, as the young midfielder picked up a loose ball following a terrific defensive block by Barry and ran almost the entire length of what remained of the Emirates pitch before centering perfectly to Mirallas at the back post. Whether the Belgian intended it or not, the ball flicked up off his instep and fell invitingly to Romelu Lukaku who controlled it with his knee before tapping home almost on the goal line to level the scores.
Game on again and, after surviving a dangerous moment when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was put in through the middle but was foiled by a one-handed stop by Robles, the Blues fashioned two great opportunities to turn the tie on its head before half time.
Unfortunately, though, having been put into space down the left channel by Lukaku, Mirallas cut inside and delivered a weak shot to waste a promising opening. And, two minutes before the interval, Lukaku himself charged forward on another counter-attack but he held onto the ball far too long and allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain to tackle him in the area before he could get a shot away.
Martinez remained bold after the break, though, and kept Leighton Baines deployed high up the left side of the pitch hoping to force the issue and put Arsenal on the back foot. His teammates struggled to supply him sufficiently, though, and there were precious few of the interchanges between the left back and Pienaar that had lit up the win over West Ham last weekend.
Nevertheless, Everton could have gone ahead from the other flank when Lukaku capitalised on a horrible slip by Thomas Vermaelen on the touchline as he tried to hack the ball forward. The Belgian left the Dutch defender prone on the floor and drove inside before laying up Barkley but the midfielder could only sweep the ball over the bar from a great position when it demanded he hit the target. It would prove to be an important miss.
The Blues had toiled hard and it was fatigue that clearly played a role in the pivotal moment in the 67th minute when Barry left a tired leg dangling on Oxlade-Chamberlain as he wriggled past him on the byline that sent the young England winger to the turf. Referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot and Mikel Arteta stepped up to plunge a dagger in the heart of his old club. As it turned out he had to do it twice as his first successful spot kick was ruled out for encroachment by substitute Olivier Giroud, but the Spaniard beat Robles with aplomb from the re-taken penalty to make it 2-1. Then he had to ruin his standing with Evertonians by needlessly kissing the Arsenal badge...
The Blues trief to respond but, in truth, they had started to run out of ideas a little. Mirallas despatched a cross-cum-shot into Fabianksi's arms and Barkley swept another shot narrowly wide from 20 yards before Martinez withdrew the Belgian and the injured Pienaar in favour of Aiden McGeady and Leon Osman.
Instead, though, it was Wenger's substitute who would kill the game, Giroud converting from eight yards out to make it 3-1 in the 83rd minute after Sagna had been given all the time in the world to pick him out from the byline. And the French striker completed Everton's misery two minutes later after Martinez's last change, Gerard Deulofeu, had run into trouble and lost the ball in Arsenal territory. A swift, rapier-like counter later and Ozil had slipped the ball to Giroud to slot past Robles. 4-1.
Many times on trips to Arsenal since we last beat them on their own turf 18 years ago have resulted Everton sides being handed a footballing lesson and today probably falls into that category in as much as Wenger's side display the speed of foot and thought and the killer instinct that the Blues currently lack as a crucial piece of Martinez's jigsaw. As we found out to our cost at Anfield in January, pace and clinical finishing can make all the difference between losing and winning – as it turned out, winning big.
Everton had their chances to turn this into a different kind of game than it eventually became but, not for the first time this season, they spurned them. Mirallas displayed more of his infuriating propensity to make the wrong decision and, on the whole, had a pretty poor game; Pienaar lacked bravery at the crucial moment with his early chance; Lukaku was lacking the kind of single-minded confidence that saw him score wonderful solo goals for club and country earlier this season with similarly driving runs; and Barkley will be ruing not having worked the 'keeper from his two chances.
The same could have been said of Arsenal at 1-1, though, and though they forced a litany of corners and set-piece opportunities, particularly in the first half, they only managed to go ahead thanks to a clumsy foul by Barry and tacked on two more goals when Everton were chasing the game and had left large gaps in front of the inexperienced Stones for the home side to ruthlessly exploit.
Everton's was not a performance that deserved to lose by three goals but Arsenal showed their quality when it mattered. And that's the model to which Martinez must aspire and towards which he must continue to build over the summer, funds permitting, of course. Adding more pace and creativity to his midfield must be a priority but he must also try and instill a cold streak in his players and the confidence to drive home an advantage or an opportunity when it presents itself.
They may have been run off the road to Wembley this weekend but Everton's season is far from over. With 11 games left and a fairly kind run-in, there are plenty of points to be won and much for Martinez to learn about his players as he continues to fashion this team around his footballing principles and ethos.
As we wallow in the dashed optimism that he himself created, it's easy to forget that Martinez is only nine months into the job. He wasn't beyond criticism today, of course – in addition to the Robles decision, there will no doubt be debate over whether he should have started the green Stones ahead of the older (but less fit) campaigner Alcaraz. But this will hopefully serve as another cornerstone in the learning process, the evolution of the club under the new manager and the continued construction of a platform from which this club can eventually achieve success.
Roberto Martinez stuck to a former pattern in naming Robles as the main change to an otherwise strong lineup that included Mirallas, Barkley, Pienaar and Lukaku as the attack-minded players, with Osman on the bench, and Baines named as captain in Jagielka's absence with a hamstring strain.
The game got off to a strange start, Everton hoofing the ball up-field and Barry clattering Arteta but getting an elbow in his face... before the Blues locked in to their possession passing game, and won a free-kick wide left. Baines swung in a great ball from it but Distin could not dig it out and Barkley tried to run the ball in but lost it. Arsenal worked their way forward, McCathy slipped, Carzola played in Ozil and the first goal was scored. Far, far too easily.
Everton were stunned and Arsenal went on to dominate the next few plays, getting good shots in on Robles. Everton then got forward with Barkley and Mirallas pulled back a great ball for Pienaar but he could not control it and Arsenal were attacking again, winning a string of corners. Barkley was getting well into it, winning the ball deep, then putting in a superb cross for Lukaku but he could not finish.
But when Arsenal got they ball, they looked threatening, surging forward through the Everton defence a little too easily for comfort. Flamini caught out Robles with a harmless ball that Robles needlessly pushed onto the angle and behind for a corner. His clearances were nervy too as Everton struggled to gain control of the game as Arsenal won another corner.
A good long run from Barkley, evading the yellow-carded Flamini, ended with an excellent ball to Mirallas at the far post but it hit his heel and spun nicely for Lukaku to juggle off his thigh and tap in from close range to put Everton on the scoreboard. But another surge by Arsenal saw them come close to scoring again, Oxlade-Chamberlains's fierce shot forcing a great save from Robles. A the other end, Mirallas should have done far better after getting a great through ball but his weak pass-back did not test Fabianski.
Arsenal pressed for the lead again leaving space for Everton to break into, Lukaku being the next to test them with a good run into the area but he could not dig out a shot or a pass under pressure from a trio of red shirts. Everton survived yet another corner (Arsenal's 10th!) at which Robles challenged his own defender, Distin to an aerial ball. Coleman then appeared to be fouled as he tried to pull the ball back on the Arsenal goalline but Clattenburg blew for half-time.
Everton needed to hold possession better but sloppy passing let them down badly at the start of the second half, ceding the initiative to the home side. Pienaar gave away a silly foul on Sanogo that eventually led to Arsenal's 11th corner. Mirallas was called a little unluckily for a handball and Carzola thankfully lashed well over in the next phase.
Lukaku was gifted the ball wide right from a hilarious Vermaelen miss-kick, he ran in and set up Barkley with a peach that the much-hyped young hope shockingly scooped over the bar when it looked easier to score with the goal gaping. At the other end, Robles had to fingertip a shot from Carzola that could have just shaved the post.
Wenger made the first change on the hour, Giroud replacing Sanogo as Arsenal put together a spell of pressure that won another corner. Everton regained possession but Mirallas was poorly offside. Everton attacked again but Lukaku seemed wasted out wide and the Blues were denied their first corner of the game. Oxlade-Chamberlain bamboozled Barry on the byeline and a penalty awarded, duly slammed in by Arteta but Giroud had encroached, so Arteta smacked the retake high into the other side.
McCarthy got a yellow for tackling Arteta from behind as Everton once again had to raise their game and get back into it. Baines whipped in an amazing cross that was too close to Fabianski, then Mirallas tried to beat the keeper with a decent shot. A spell of pretty good pressure from Everton saw them win their first corner, taken short, and Barkley again shooting off-target. Martinez decided it was time to replace Pienaar with Osman and Mirallas with McGeady.
It seemed that Martinez was waiting for Arsenal's third goal before he would bring on Deulofeu and that goal came when Sanyo pulled the ball back and Giroud could not miss. The young Spaniard came on for Barkley, tried a few stopovers then all too easily squandered possession in a forward position and watched as a rampant Arsenal danced through the stretched Everton defence and Giroud again made it a shocking 4-1 scoreline.
It was shooting practice for the red shirts in the final minutes as Everton's season collapsed miserably at the scene of perhaps their best display a few months earlier. Everton had played well at times but were clearly disturbed by the early setback and, despite having more shots than Arsenal in the first half, rarely played them off the park, as they had done in the league encounter.
The most important match of Everton's season so far rolls around tomorrow as they make the trip south to London for an FA Cup Quarter Final clash with Arsenal. The plum draw of the round handed the Blues their toughest test of the competition so far against one of the five remaining top-flight sides but they know that a place at Wembley in the Semi Finals awaits the winners.
Having played the Gunners off their own park for most of the Premier League edition of this fixture earlier in the season and earned a 1-1 draw and also buouyed by last weekend's win over West Ham, where Romelu Lukaku marked his return to action with the winning goal, Roberto Martinez's men will approach this potentially daunting tie with a fair degree of confidence.
That the Spaniard demonstrated in last season's FA Cup how effectively he can work his magic to steer the underdog to victory – his Wigan side demolished Everton at this stage, of course – will only add an extra dimension to what is a fascinating contest.
Given the calibre of the opposition, it behooves Martinez to pick his strongest available team so it will be interesting to see whether he persists with Joel Robles in goal given how the Spanish 'keeper was been given the gloves in all of the previous rounds this season. It's worth noting, too, that he was between the sticks in last year's FA Cup final against Manchester City and for that fact alone his manager may feel he is the man for this particular job as well.
Robles has been erratic when he has played for Everton thus far, though, and there are plenty of Evertonians who feel that Tim Howard must play given the opponents and the stakes.
While Lukaku is surely nailed on to start at the other end of the pitch, Martinez will have decisions to make in defence and midfield, particularly if, as expected, Phil Jagielka doesn't pass a fitness test on his strained hamstring. The Blues' Captain has made one surprise return from a similar injury already this season when he started the Anfield derby at the end of January and it didn't end too well. Arsenal aren't the same counter-attacking menace as Liverpool were that night but Jagielka would need to be sharp nonetheless as the Gunners do possess pace in their ranks.
John Stones deputised superbly against West Ham last weekend but, as is natural given his teenage years, is prone to the odd positional mistake or misjudgement of the flight of an aerial ball so Martinez will need to balance his precocious talents with the more experienced but more pedestrian Antolin Alacaraz who hasnn't played since the debacle at Anfield. Stones will likely get the nod.
In midfield, the smart money will go on Kevin Mirallas swapping in for Gerard Deulofeu. Though the Belgian played an hour for his country in midweek, he has the benefit of being rested last weekend and his greater experience and more reliable end-product should see him selected ahead of the young Spaniard. Deulofeu, as was the case the last time the two sides met where he scored a stunning equaliser, will likely be kept in reserve as a potential weapon later in the game.
Elsewhere in midfield, the elder statesman Leon Osman will surely edge into the starting XI over Ross Barkley who is still feeling his way back to form, with Steven Pienaar continuing his link-up with Leighton Baines down the left.
Arsene Wenger will be forced into some reshuffling of his own given the metatarsal fracture Jack Wilshere sustained on England duty in midweek, while defender Lorent Koscielny is a major doubt. The Gunners will have one eye on the second leg of their Champions League tie with Bayern Munich, which they trail 2-0 from the home leg, and could also be distracted by their flatering League title challenge. So, a few cracks for Martinez to exploit.
With the possibility of a replay hovering in the background, this isn't quite a do-or-die situation for Everton but the knowledge that they can't lose will hopefully rouse some more enterprise from them in the final third where they were, again, found a little wanting against the Hammers. Lukaku's presence leading the line will undoubtedly help but Martinez will need big performances all over the park.
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* Everton deducted 6 points for PSR breachView full table