Had you asked any Evertonian last summer whether they would have taken being a point off fourth place with four games left they would surely have bitten your hand off. It is unquestionably true that what Roberto Martinez has achieved in getting Everton to within touching distance of a Champions League spot in a season of transition is remarkable.
By the same token, having seemingly fallen out of top-four contention back in February but then dragged themselves back into the mix with seven straight victories, it is also true that fourth place, as unlikely as it seemed 9 months ago, was in the Blues' hands. With this body blow of a defeat to lowly Crystal Palace, though, they may have blown it.
The post-mortem will centre, no doubt, around Martinez's team selection, one predicated on the defensive organisation of Tony Pulis' outfit while, perhaps, underestimating their attacking strengths, and given Everton's challenges trying to break the visitors down at the other end, it was alarming how easily Palace scored three goals to put this contest beyond Everton's ultimately frustrated players.
It was arguably those defensive lapses and not so much the attacking failings that were Everton's undoing. Romelu Lukaku was, to be brutally frank, awful; Kevin Mirallas profligate with the final chance of the game where he air-kicked Ross Barkley's sublimely-created chance; Gerard Deulofeu predictable down the right flank; and Palace formidable as an obstacle when they dug in and retained their shape behind the ball. But Martinez's men still scored two goals and were it not for Julian Speroni in the opposition goal, who pulled off two or three excellent saves, the Blues might well have won.
Ultimately, though, a match that, on paper, was the Blues' ticket back into the top four this evening and a chance to keep their destiny in their own hands, turned into a disaster, one that felt all very... well, Everton.
The frustrations in the final third that would characterise Everton going forward this evening were evident fairly early on. They dominated possession in the first quarter of the game but struggled to find paths through the Palace defence. Gareth Barry headed an early corner over when he might have at least hit the target, Deulofeu flashed one of his trademark balls across the face of goal and Aiden McGeady arrowed a shot narrowly over but the Blues were largely restricted to shots from distance.
Palace, meanwhile, were hitting the front pairing of Cameron Jerome and Marouane Chamakh more easily than was comfortable and with the ever-dangerous Yannick Bolasie probing from deep, they offered a threat if Everton committed too many bodies forward, particularly with Barry's usual, industrious sidekick, James McCarthy, rested on the bench due to an unspecified muscle injury.
So it proved after 22 minutes when Bolasie lost Leighton Baines too easily and cut the ball back from the byline, prompting Tim Howard to push the ball out towards the penalty spot. There Chamakh laid it off to Jason Puncheon and he swept the ball past two defenders and into the far corner to put the visitors ahead.
Goodison was immediately set on edge and it took Everton another 11 minutes before they threatened an equaliser, Mirallas turning impressively and lashing a shot inches over the bar from an acute angle. That was followed by Lukaku's best moment of the evening where he swivelled and almost beat Speroni by his near post but the 'keeper turned it behind for a corner.
In between, the visitors remained hungry and committed, winning most of the physical battles and Bolasie came within inches of doubling their lead, smashing a 25-yard effort off the face of Howard's post.
Half time brought an unsurprising change from Martinez who withdrew Deulofeu in favour of Steven Naismith. The Spaniard had arguably been a more likely source of an opening on the evidence of the first 45 minutes than, say, McGeady but you felt that any end-product would, rather like Saturday against Sunderland, have come from persistence rather than genuine inspiration.
The Irish international did came within a whisker of scoring his first Everton goal eight minutes after half time when his shot whistled across goal and missed the far post by inches but, unfortunately, Everton were 2-0 down by that point thanks to a soft goal conceded from a corner just three minutes after the restart.
Howard had parried Joe Ledley's shot behind for a corner and from the resulting set-piece, Scott Dann was allowed to head home unchallenged. The goal was infuriating in both its preventability and the fact that Everton forced 13 corners themselves over the course of the match and didn't really look threatening from any of them. It remains a curious flaw in the Martinez revolution and this was preceisely the kind of match where a decent set-piece routine might earned a point or three.
A further double change in response from Martinez followed in 59th minute, McGeady and Barry making way for McCarthy and Leon Osman and the Blues halved the deficit two minutes later. Persistence from Mirallas saw him twist and turn on the right side of the area before he flighted a cross to the back post where Baines headed back across goal into the path of Naismith. In predatory fashion, the Scot was on hand to poke home from a couple of yards out and Everton were back in business.
Had Mirallas been able to turn Baines' cross home at the far post seven minutes later, there might have been a very different outcome to this game. The Belgian came steaming in to meet the England left-back's deep ball but he couldn't keep it down and it flew over the crossbar. Speroni then tipped Osman's terrific snapshot over the crossbar to preserve Palace's lead, one they extended again with 17 minutes left of the regulation 90.
Puncheon was allowed to drive across the edge of the Everton area before feeding Jerome and he was able to turn Stones who partially lost his footing giving the striker a crucial opening from which he bent a shot around Howard. It was one of those moments where you felt a more sure-footed and dogged Phil Jagielka might have extinguished the chance with a tackle or a saving block but the 19 year-old's contribution to the rest of the contest in terms of distribution and moving with the ball in myriad areas of the field was awe-inspiring. His composure and versatility will make him an incredible asset in the coming years and every game he plays, including this one, just adds to his experience.
The third Palace goal was a punch to the gut but Everton had no option but to keep probing away at the yellow blockade in front of them, trying to pry it open with an incisive move or force a mistake. Barkley looked for all the world like he had broken that resistance as the game ticked into the final 10 minutes when he raked an angled shot that was destined for the far corner until Speroni stuck out a crucial foot to steer it wide of his far post.
A quick free kick a couple of minutes later put Barkley in again but his shot was blocked and Osman blasted the rebound wide before the Blues grabbed a lifeline in the 86th minute. Barkley was involved again, his forward pass deflecting off Ledley's heel and diverting it behind the Palace defence where Mirallas was alive to the opportunity. He stole in ahead of the goalkeeper, neatly rounded him and flicked the ball into the empty net.
Four minutes of normal time remained and six minutes of stoppage time would follow but Everton would continue to be frustrated and disrupted by the Londoners' tenacity, determined defending, time-wasting and fouls. In that time, though, they did fashion one more great chance when Barkley, tired of trying to pick his way through a wall of defenders, scooped the ball superbly over the top but Mirallas couldn't make contact in front of goal and the chance was snuffed out. And that was that. Truly gutting, not least because Manchester City's surprising draw at home to Sunderland had opened the door ever so slightly to third place for Everton.
I'll admit it. I had started to believe. To hope that this was finally our time, that Roberto's magic had dispelled this notion that it's just "so Everton" to either let slip a gilt-edged opportunity to crack that glass ceiling or, as was the case in 2005, to have it ripped away from us.
And when that moment of inevitable despair came, you expected it might come at the hands of City early next month. Not against Crystal Palace, of all teams (although they deserve huge credit for their performance). Not at Goodison Park, under the lights, with a packed house roaring the team on to a new era. To paraphrase John Cleese, you can stand the despair; it's the hope that kills you.
Of course, with four games left and just one point in it, it's far from over. Arsenal have the upper hand now and it is they who can now assure a crack at the Champions League by finishing with a 100% record from here on out but neither side have any margin for error. A slip by the Gunners at Hull on Sunday afternoon would open the door again for Everton who would kick off against Manchester United knowing a win would take them back into the top four and that they'd be three wins from a chance at the promised land.
There I go hoping again, but it ain't over 'til it's over.
Everton took on Crystal Palace looking to extend their record-setting run of Premier League victories to eight which would keep them in the driving seat in the race for fourth place.
James McCarthy got a rare rest, dropping to the bench along with Steven Naismith and Leon Osman as Roberto Martinez named an attacking line-up featuring Aiden McGeady, Gerard Deulofeu and Kevin Mirallas.
Everton pushed forward from the off, Barry winning the first corner and heading just over off McGeady's excellent delivery. Deulofeu then with another trademark run in and cross from the right and out for a second corner, taken poorly by Baines.
Everton kept the game at a high tempo but couldn't quite make the required connections going into the Palace area. Lukaku seemed to pull a groin muscle on an innocuous looking attempt at goal. Barkley then overstretched, stumbled and was fouled all in one move as the ball ran away from him into the Palace area: a clear penalty — if he had been wearing a red shirt!
More fabulous stepovers from Deulofeu won a third corner, which he delivered from the right, but it was defended away too easily, and Palace were allowed to run at the Everton defence, but with no end product. Ledley and then Jerome combined dangerously but the latter was well offside when he headed over. Mirallas won and took Everton's fourth corner but the delivery was no better.
Palace were looking just a little too dangerous when they came forward and sure enough when Puncheon finished into the corner of the Gwladys Street net after Howard had palmed the ball out to Chamahk following a good run by Bolasie around the back of the lacklustre Everton defence. A really poor goal to give away through laziness and over-confidence.
The Everton crowd were not too impressed with the response to going behind: too many poor passes; too much possession squandered cheaply. And it almost led to a second when Bolasie powered in a vicious shot that beat Howard and smacked off the face of the post behind him, Jerome thankfully unable to finish the rebound off.
Another sweeping forward move by Everton was again countered, ending in another corner, better from Deulofeu, that McGeady curved over from outside the area. Speronni then had to get down well to stop a shot from Lukaku sneaking in at the near post. A better corner almost created another chance as the Blues started to reasset themselves but Jeromme got forward and won a good free-kick off Barry.
Palace went in at the break with the bit firmly between their teeth leaving Everton with a huge second-half mountain to climb if they were to make more of a dent in the effective rearguard action being mounted successfully by the visitors to deny their hosts many real chances on goal.
Deulofeu was withdrawn at the break, with Naismith replacing him. But it did nothing to thwart a bright Palace side who were determined to tale the game to Everton, Ledley getting a great shot in on Tim Howard. From the corner, Scot Dann was all alone as he headed in the resulting corner unchallenged.
McGeady tried to change things up but saw his third strike from distance fly past the target. Coleman was next upfield but Bolasie had him well covered. Everton were lacking coherence all over the park as Palace swarmed at them like bees. A Baines free-kick wide right was delivered in well this time but headed over by Lukaku. Martinez completed the changes on the hour, McCarthy and Osman on for McGeady and Barry.
It was scrappy when it finally came, but a decent cross to the far post by Mirallas (after a very poor first attempt) stood up nicely for Baines to head back in and there was Naismith to bundle it across the line, taking out Speronni in the process.
Some lively exchanges really got the crowd going, Mariappa coming off worst after competition for an aerial ball, Baines giving him a bloody nose and earning a yellow card as Crystal Palace physios took full advantage of disrupting the Everton flow. A fabulous ball to the back post and Mirallas should have burst the net but Mirallas could only spoon it well over the goal as Parr replaced Mariappa and the atmosphere hit fever pitch.
A tremendous shot by Osman was tipped onto the crossbar, as the Blues pushed for the equalizer. But it was a stunning piece of skill form Jerome who dug out a wicked shot from hardly anything to beat Howard and tuck his shot inside the post, instantly silencing a stunned Goodison Park.
The third goal knocked the stuffing out the Blues, who could no longer raise the tempo, a long run by Lukaku ending in a dreadful layoff to nobody. Barkley won corner with probing pass, then took it on himself, bursting in and firing low, Speronni saving with a desperate lunge of his foot. From the corner, then a quick free-kick, something should have come from it but Osman's shot was wayward.
Mirallas did superbly to anticipate a good ball behind the Palace defence and clip it beyond Speronni then over the line with 5 mins left, but Barkley spoilt it a little, shooting horribly over when more composure was called for. Everton kept probing as the minutes ticked away. but nothing would really fall right for them in the end, and a shocking home defeat brought to an end the wonderful seven-game winning streak.
The number of remaining games keeps diminishing and with every Everton victory, Champions League qualification edges a little closer. Saturday's win at Sunderland set a club record for consecutive wins in the Premier League era and an eighth tomorrow evening against Crystal Palace, the Blues' crucial game in hand, will keep them in the driving seat in the race for fourth place, regardless of how Arsenal fare against West Ham.
In the context of the psychology as the two clubs duel for that coveted place in the top four, the hurricane-force wins that forced the last-minute postponement of this fixture in 12th February were a blessing in disguise for Everton – Roberto Martinez's side have powered through their seven-game winning streak knowing that they had an extra game in their back pocket.
Not only that, there was no Romelu Lukaku available on the original date as the Belgian was recovering from an ankle injury sustained two weeks previously in the Anfield derby and both Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu were feeling their way back from their own injuries. Martinez named Steven Naismith and Aiden McGeady in the starting XI that night, two players who had not by that pointscaught the collective Evertonian imagination and there was a feeling that a rapidly improving Palace side would cause the Blues problems in very windy conditions.
The Blues are altogether stonger now in terms of personnel, experience and mentality and with belief growing all the time, they are in great shape to win this game if they maintain their focus and, importantly, their intensity. Vitally, with no further injury concerns and his players – Gareth Barry, in particular – making it past Sunday's yellow card amnesty, all the players who were in the squad at the Stadium of Light at the weekend should be available again for selection.
Phil Jagielka has been pencilled in as being fit again this weekend for the visit of Manchester United so will miss out again, leaving John Stones to further cement his growing reputation as an impossibly composed central defensive prospect. Barkley, Aiden McGeady and Kevin Mirallas will be pushing for places in the team after starting on the bench against Sunderland.
The weather will be better this time but Tony Pulis' team will still likely prove problematic opponents. The ex-Stoke boss has lifted the South London side away from relegation trouble in impressive fashion since replacing Ian Holloway. Indeed, in the reverse fixture at Selhurst Park, the Eagles were rock bottom of the table but they're now just three points short of the "magic" 40-point mark having won three games on the bounce.
They will come to Goodison in confident mood, having beaten Chelsea two weeks ago and offer the prospect of physical, powerful opposition with threats on the counter attack. They beat Cardiff convincingly 3-0 away the Saturday before last but struggled on the grounds of other struggling teams likes Newcastle, Swansea and Sunderland, losing the the Barcodes and drawing the other two.
Those results should give the Blues plenty of cause for optimism but, again, the clear truth of the matter is that if Everton match the same intensity, drive and attacking fluidity with which they blew Arsenal away, then Palace will be no match for them.
In many ways, there is more trepidation about this potentially tricky fixture than the arguably more difficult game looming on Sunday simply because a meeting with United and a chance to put one over David Moyes generates all the necessary passion from the crowd and players that we'll need. Hopefully, the prize of Champions League football that will look so much more attainable if we can win these consecutive home games, will sufficiently fire up the fans and the team to comfortably despatch of Palace so that we can keep hold of fourth place.
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* Everton deducted 6 points for PSR breachView full table