Everton furthered their European ambitions with an important win over Cardiff City but it took a stoppage-time strike from Seamus Coleman to claim the points and deny the Welsh side a point they would have earned off an excellent display by David Marshall in goal.
On the balance of the 90 minutes, few could argue that Roberto Martinz's team deserved the victory – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would try to claim after the match that his side were cruelly done by with the late goal and a dubious penalty claim when Wilfred Zaha went down in the box in the second half – but they left it late...very late.
It left you feeling as though we'd got away with one, particularly after an often turgid and directionless second-half performance, but were it not for Marshall it could easily have been 3-0 at the break and Juan Cala's 68th-minute goal would have been academic, apart, perhaps, for an inquest in the Everton defence over the horrendous manner in which it was conceded.
The Bluebirds' goalkeeper was in inspired form, pulling off four or five superb saves over the course of the game and was eventually beaten with the help of a deflection off his defender for Everton's first and a mis-hit shot by Coleman for the winner at the death. Cala, too, made a crucial intervention to block Kevin Mirallas' goalbound shot as the ascedent Blues were thwarted on the first half.
With Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar ruled out through injury as expected, Martinez was forced into at least one change from the team beaten at Arsenal in the FA Cup last weekend but made three, handing Gerard Deulofeu another start, swapping Leon Osman for Ross Barkley and returning Tim Howard to the staring goalkeeper role.
And it was typical Everton almost from the word go, the home side beginning on the front foot and Mirallas testing Marshall early with a great attempt at bending the ball inside the far post from the edge of the penaly area but the 'keeper turned it behind at full stretch. The resulting corner dropped into no-man's land inside the six-yard box where Cala's clearance cannoned off Romelu Lukaku and flew narrowly over.
As the 38,000+ crowd no doubt expected, there were plenty of intricate interchanges and passing moves as the Blues set about trying to break Cardiff down. Once such exchange between Osman and Leighton Baines down the left was positively "Bainaar-esque" but Steven Caaulker nipped in at the byline to knock it behind for a corner which was cleared.
Gareth Barry was superb in central midfield, matching James McCarthy's industry with some impressive defensive work and tenacity in the tackle further forward, which left the more attacking players more freedom to express themselves with varying degrees of success.
When the likes of Mirallas, Baines and Osman weren't peppering the Park End stand with wayward efforts from long range, Everton would find themselves consistently frustrated by individual interventions by Cardiff's rearguard throughout the first 45 minutes, notably that Cala sliding block to deny Mirallas at the end of a surging counter-attack that ended with Coleman's square ball and a neat lay-off by Lukaku to his compatriot who would likely have otherwise scored.
Deulofeu, often double-marked and mercurial as always but afforded the opportunity and time to experiment and tease, succeed and fail, then danced past one opponent on the edge of the area and side-footed looking for the far corner but Marshall got a hand to the ball and palmed it behind. And the 'keeper went one better a couple of minutes later when Lukaku ended another quick Everton counter with a surging run and blistering strike that Marshall acrobatically pushed over with one hand.
Though well-organised at the back for the most part and well out-matched in terms of possession, Cardiff hadn't just come to park the bus and they came very close pinching the lead when Fraser Campbell profited from a fortunate rebound off Distin on the edge of the Everton area but was foiled by Howard's out-stretched foot.
Apart from a few corners, the visitors were largely unthreatening before the break and the Blues finished the stronger side, albeit somewhat frustratingly given Mirallas' greed and poor decision-making which saw him cut inside and shot tamely and then waste another chance when he should have passed after Barry's bravery had set him up in an advanced position. Barry was floored in the move by an awful, late tackle by Kévin Théophile-Catherine that saw the midfielder rightly booked.
If the first half was positive from the Blues' point of view, the second betrayed the inability of Martinez's side the retain their tempo and pressure for a full 90 minutes. They came out of the dressing room purposefully enough, carving out a good chance for Lukaku inside the first minute through Baines's cross from the byline but Cala was there again to block the striker's shot at the near post.
A couple of minutes later at the other end, Howard made a fairly routine one-handed stop to turn Campbell's low drive behind before the game fell into a lull that threatened to stall the Blues' momentum entirely. Martinez was alive to his side's stagnating display and was preparing at least one change when the first goal came.
Deulofeu, popping up on the left flank this time, toed the ball past his marker to steal the yard or so he needed to drive into the Cardiff box and with decoys to his right he took the expected option of a shot and found the net by way of a defender's leg to make it 1-0 with 59 minutes gone.
That probably should have been the platform on which the Spaniard could take the attacking side of Everton's game by the scruff of the neck again but he would leave the field folornly just three minutes later along with Mirallas, Martinez electing to withdraw the pair in favour of Steven Naismith and Aiden McGeady. Though clearly a decision made with squad rotation in mind, it felt premature given the stage of the game – it's likely both players would been substituted even without the cushion of the first goal – and it looked to be an even more questionable move when the Blues remained in their torpor and Cardiff equalised.
Coleman was ruled to have fouled Campbell in a dangerous area on Everton's right – referee Roger East buying the forward's artistic fall – and Peter Whittingham flighted the resulting free kick into the heart of the home defence where Cala easily got in front of Barry to bundle the ball home.
Everton's initial response was an almost immediate goal, Osman flashing a half-volley just wide but it took another 10 minutes for the next real chance to arrive and it took another brilliant stop by Marshall to keep it out. Lukaku's deflected shot looked like it was going to creep inside the post but the 'keeper got one hand to it and steered around his right-hand post.
Despite Everton's superiority it felt like anyone's game going into the final 10 minutes because Cardiff were growing in confidence and were increasingly looking to catch the Blues out on the break. They almost silenced Goodison completely when John Stones elected to let the ball bounce past him and he was robbed by Zaha, but the young defender atoned for the slip by blocking the winger's shot.
With time running out and Everton still struggling for ryhthm and incisiveness, Martinez played his last card in the form of Ross Barkley who came on for Osman with eight minutes to go and, after going close with a header off a corner – unsuprisingly it was blocked on its way to goal – he was part of the spell of intense pressure that the home side built in the last few minutes that produced the goal.
Almost dispossessed 10 yards outside the Cardiff box, the 20 year-old kept a move alive by feeding it wide left to McGeady who, as he had done frequently since coming on, terrorised his marker with quick feet and flitted to the byline before crossing deep to the back post. Barry was there to head it back into the danger zone where Coleman shaped to crash a half-volley home but sliced his shot and the ball seemed to arc in slow motion into the empty side of Marshall's goal before nestling in the net. 2-1 and bedlam in the stands as the Irishman was mobbed by his teammates. Is there anything better in football than a last-minute winner?
The goal secured three more points, preserved Everton's record of having followed up every defeat this season with a victory, and moved the Blues back into sixth place, two points behind Tottenham who have played a game more. The win felt a little fortuitous in light of that disappointing second-half showing but Martinez's side certainly did enough over the course of the game to have deserved it.
More than securing the points, Coleman's strike keeps morale high and will help create momentum should Everton follow this up with victory over Swansea next weekend. You feel as though a lot of the optimism from this first season under the new manager would have been sucked out by another frustrating draw and the post-mortem would have been dominated by Martinez's substitutions. Removing both Mirallas and Deulofeu seemed initally to be counter-intuitive, Barkley's introduction felt like it came too late, but the manager will stand by his longer-term view which has the remaining 10 games, and the need for player rotation, in mind.
He will feel vindicated by McGeady, though. The Irish international has flattered to deceive so far since his arrival from the Russian league but, like Deulofeu, clearly needs enough time on the pitch in any given game in which to work his magic. Today, his end-product was a lot more consistent than it has been in prior appearances and he seemed more able than was Deulofeu to find room under the attentions of two or three red shirts to work crosses into the box. His display today bodes well for the future and gives Martinez another unpredictable option to throw at opposition defences.
The top four, eight points away with Arsenal still to play tomorrow, remains an unlikely dream but anything can happen in the run-in so the mantra remains: just keep on winning.
With the road to Wembley leading to a dead end for the second season running, Everton's focus returns fully to the Premier League this weekend for the visit of Cardiff City, the first of two successive home games against the clubs from South Wales.
Having slipped back into seventh place last weekend as Manchester United took advantage of their FA Cup duty, it's a chance for the Blues to establish some momentum following four defeats in their last eight matches in all competitions. European quailfication is now the goal for Roberto Martinez's side and rediscovering some consistency is going to be key to achieving it.
They meet a Cardiff side still very much in the midsts of a relegation dogfight and trying to find its feet under the fledgeling tenure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They come into this weekend sitting in the drop zone, four points off the bottom, having won just two of their 10 League games since turn of the year.
If there have been a couple of silver linings to their recent form they would be last weekend's 3-1 victory over Fulham and the fact that they ran Tottenham very close at White Hart Lane the week before but they come to Goodison Park hoping to escape with a point.
Though Everton will start as favourites, if this season has demonstrated anything it's that nothing comes easily, particularly to Roberto Martinez's side when they're not scoring goals. The reverse fixture between these two sides was a case in point – though the Blues would surely have won that contest had they been awarded a stonewall penalty for Gary Medel's clear foul on Leighton Baines – and while they've come a long way since those tentative draws that began the campaign, Everton continue to battle carve out enough clear-cut chances.
That was the situation against West Ham United in the last Premier League game at Goodison Park a fortnight ago but there's no doubt that a repeat of that 1-0 scoreline would surely go down just fine among supporters and players alike. Points are what matter now as the Blues bid to finish as high as possible.
Martinez said in the week that he would continue to monitor the progress of Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar after the former missed a second successive game last Saturday with a hamstring injury and the South African left the Emirates pitch with an unspecified injury of his own.
It's possible – even likely, perhaps – that he won't risk either player this weekend and that would probably mean another outing and learning opportunity for John Stones alongside Sylvain Distin at the back and, perhaps, a start for Leon Osman or Aiden McGeady in place of Pienaar on the left side of midfield.
The fact that Gerard Deulofeu started the West Ham game might suggest he will again get the nod of Kevin Mirallas on the other side of midfield, while Ross Barkley certainly made his case for inclusion from the start with his performance against Arsenal last weekend. In goal, Tim Howard is due to return after sitting out the Cup defeat in favour of Joel Robles.
With Martinez still refusing to rule out Champions League qualification and will continue to do so while it is mathematically possible, every game becomes akin to a cup final where the three points are paramount. This will not be an easy task, though, and Cardiff are likely to defend deep and pack men behind the ball in an attempt to frustrate Everton into a pattern of unproductive dominance of possession.
If the Blues can cut loose and rack up some goals, though, it would go a long way to lifting morale on the pitch and in the stands, building confidedence for the final straight of 10 games that could yet define Martinez's first season in charge.
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* Everton deducted 6 points for PSR breachView full table