It's fair to say that Steven Pienaar's season hadn't really got going by the time he tore a hamstring in training before the Chelsea game last month, just three Premier League games into the new season. His famous link-up with Leighton Baines down Everton's left hadn't been able to help provide a League win in August as Roberto Martinez began his time tenure with three consecutive draws and his personal form was, by many accounts, below his usual standards.
Fast forward seven weeks and the South African steps off the substitute's bench to score a vital winning goal with his first touch of a game that Everton deserved to win despite a feisty display by a Hull City side who appear to have enough spirit and endeavour in their arsenal to stay up on their return to the top flight.
Certainly, this was not the mauling that the Tigers suffered the last time
they were at Goodison Park and they caused the Blues plenty of problems – albeit mostly from set pieces – and it wasn't Everton's best or most consistent display either but Martinez's men had enough quality in the final reckoning to register their fourth victory in their last five matches.
What Everton did re-establish, however, was the start-to-finish dominance of possession instilled and mandated by Martinez, something they had relinquished in the second half against Newcastle three weeks ago and, more predictably, at the Etihad Stadium last time out. It didn't always make for comfortable viewing , however, as Steve Bruce had clearly done his homework on the discomfort Everton's central defensive pairing have exhibited with the order to play it out from the back at almost every turn over the past few weeks.
Sylvain Distin, in particular, was caught out on a couple of occasions after being chased and harried by Hull's forward players, which created unnecessary disquiet in the Everton defence and led some early chances for the visitors from set-pieces as the Blues struggled to cope with Hull's aerial threat. Three times in the first half hour, either Curtis Davies or Abdullah Faye were allowed free headers but, thankfully, they failed to find the target on each occasion.
Everton didn't take long to threaten themselves, though, Romelu Lukaku initially contining the rich vein of form that helped secure Belgium's passage to the World Cup Finals in Brazil next summer by brushing Davies aside with almost comical ease in the fifth minute and then testing Alan McGregor in the Hull goal with a side-foot effort that the 'keeper beat away for a corner.
And just three minutes after that, the Blues' first goal arrived, initially thanks to a lovely move down the left flank that ended with a one-two between Kevin Mirallas and Leon Osman that forced a corner on the Everton left. Leighton Baines collected the subsequent clearance before moving it on to Osman who fed it to Kevin Mirallas about five yards outside the area whereupon the Belgian stroked a low shot that crept in off the post with McGregor, presumably unsighted, rooted to the spot.
Analysis of the TV replays would show that Gareth Barry was marginally offside and in the 'keeper's line of sight when the ball was struck but the goal stood.
Despite having grabbed the early lead, though, Everton found it difficult to dictate the game and struggled to consistently create chances. Ross Barkley, who had a mixed afternoon overall but whose precocious, purposeful forward runs were a vital attacking weapon throughout his time on the pitch, forced a save from McGregor with a good shot from the edge of the box and Osman bounced a shot-cum-cross wide that Lukaku came within inches of converting in front of goal.
While Everton were generally struggling to win the aerial battles, it was from a rare chance created on the ground that the Tigers equalised with half an hour gone. Sone Aluko drove impressively to the byline and eluded the attentions of Baines by sending his cut-back into the area between the defender's legs where Yannick Sagbo, an early substitute for the injured Danny Graham, arrived untracked to smash ithe ball past Tim Howard.
Importantly, though, the Blues responded by reestablishing their momentum for the remainder of the half, Barkley seeing a decent effort blocked, Mirallas firing an ambitious, dipping shot just over and Lukaku inadvertantly blocking Phil Jagielka's goalbound header from a corner just before the interval.
Hull ended the half as they had begun it, by pressing Everton into mistakes at the back and a slip by Jagielka let Aluko in for a shot on goal that looped off Distin and over the bar. And there was more uncertainty from the resulting corner where Baines had to head behind at the back post with the same Hull player lurking with the intent of sending the visitors into the break 2-1 up.
To Everton's credit, they emerged from half time in more disciplined mood. Aided by another industrious display by James McCarthy, whose tenacity and ability to seemingly be everywhere across the centre of the park in recent games is going a long way to justifying his hefty price tag, and the welcome return of Barry, Martinez's side remained largely in control of proceedings.
There wasn't much end product for the first 10 minutes or so, though, and Lukaku continued to be largely peripheral to the action. The manager made a positive move just 11 minutes into the second period, though, withdrawing the increasingly ineffective Osman in favour of Pienaar, who hadn't been expected back until next weekend at the earliest.
15 seconds after his introduction, Barkley surged forward and fed Mirallas who centred first time to meet Pienaar's run and the South African swept the ball home with a deft, first-time touch to make it 2-1. It was no more than the Blues deserved, even if Steve Bruce would grumble after the game that Barry might have been sent off for tackle on Aluko where the follow-through of his boot off the top of the ball took his studs in the opponent's shin. The Hull boss would make no mention of an equally ugly-looking, studs-up tackle by Sagbo on Jagielka in the 70th minute.
Lukaku, presumably tiring after his international commitments, had been withdrawn by that stage to give Arouna Kone the chance to make an impression and within 10 minutes of coming on, the Ivorian would get the opportunity to score his first Everton goal served on a platter at the end of a impressive, quick move. Jinking to his right to make space on the right of the defender in front him, he seemed to have done the hard part but then smacked his shot off the post trying to drive it past the 'keeper's reach.
Barely a minute later, Kone was in on goal again as he drove into space ahead of him but McGregor foiled him this time with a one-handed save and with that went a great chance for Everton to wrap up the game with time to spare.
While that made for a more nervy finale than was necessary, in truth Hull hadn't been much of a threat since Livermore wasted a good opportunity in the 56th minute, dragging a free shot across goal and behind. The Blues comfortably saw out injury time with a spell of keep ball and time was called on another successful day at the office for Martinez's men.
Questions will continue to be raised about the uncertainty at the back and the continuing inability to really kill opponents off when the team is in control but, at the end of the day, the three points are all that matter. Yes, more accomplished opposition would likely have have given us a more thorough examination and possibly exploited the shortage of tightness at in defence but the job was done at the other end and the win was secured without a starring role from Lukaku or a complete display from Barkley.
The latter exhibited plenty of raw talent and unabashed ability to cause problems with his desire just to keep driving forward but he was guilty of a couple of poor decisions in the second half, one in particular prompted a petulant reaction from Mirallas when he didn't lay the ball on to him when he was in oceans of space on the right side of the area. On the whole, though, he did well and continued his education at the top level.
Annoying away wins for Manchester City and Tottenham mean that the Blues stay in seventh place but as long as the wins keep coming, the League placing will take care of itself. Another three points on the road at Villa next week to match Spurs' result would go a long way to enhancing Everton's prospects of finishing in the European places this season, even at this relatively early stage.
Roberto Martinez named his strongest side of those available, with Barry coming back in to take on Hull City at Goodison Park. Gibson, Pienaar and Alcaraz were ruled out through injury. Everton got the early lead when Barry appeared to clip a low shot from Mirallas that went in off the foot of the post. Hull felt hard-done by, as Davies went off after being clipped by Barry who was cautioned for fouling Aluko, the Hull player then setting up Sagbo to lash in an equalizer. Everton laboured after the break until Pienaar made his return as a substitute for Osman before the hour mark and in some fine style to put Everton ahead with his first touch, a delightful clip inside the post. Everton held on to move up to 5th.
Hull kicked off and had Everton pushed back in the early exchanges, Davies heading over from Huddlestone's early corner. But Lukaku was into action, brushing Davies aside but shooting hard at McGregorm who blocked it away for an Everrton corner that was headed wide. Then a great move eventually led to the opening goal after a corner when Osman fed the ball back in to Mirallas after Baines was barged over and Mirallas lashed a somewhat speculative grass-clipper that found it's way through the ball-watching Hull defense from outside the area, and in off the foot of McGrgeor's post as he watched in some shock, the puzzle being why he made no attempt to save it! But that was the last thing a packed Goodison crowd cared about as they erupted with glee. In slo-mo, it appeared that Barry (moving forward from a marginally offside position) may have clipped the ball and helped redirect it off the post.
Hull striker Danny Graham came off worst in what didn't appear to be even a foul by Gareth Barry, but his knee was clipped and the stretcher appeared, followed by Yanik Zagbo, sub. A free-kick was then awarded in Everton's favour, presumably given as handball when it came off Elmohamady(?)'s shoulder. Baines curled it in nicely but McGregor had it covered. Barkley then tested McGregor with a low direct shot as Everton dominated the play but a poor pass by Osman broke down a very promising attack, Faye getting a free header just over the bar off a corner that resulted from the ensuing Hull attack.
A dreadful spell of PIATB saw Distin play a horrible ball back to Howard who almost screwed it into his own net, Faye coming very close with another worrying free header off the corner. At the other end, Lukaku almost connected with a speculative Osman shot. Hull were making a real game of it, coming back at Everton, forcing Barry to accidentally foul Aluko as he came in over the ball and earned a yellow card for catching the Hull player's shin full on.
The shakey Everton defence could do nothing when Aluko powered his way to the byeline and clipped back to pick out Sagbo who lashed the ball past Howard to level the score.
Davies deliberately clipped Barkley in midfield but no yellow card and Baines wasted the free-kick. Barkley had another strike that was blocked as the youngster was able to make space for himself. It was spirited stuff, with Hull doing everything they could to stop the Blues regaining the lead.
Barkley got Everton moving forward again but Lukaku did not anticipate Baines's brilliant low cross and Jagielka's effort off the corner was blocked by the back of Lukaku's head. Elmohamady went down after a tangle with McCarthy as the half ended with 5 mins of added time. Jagielka was resorting to the long ball and losing possession each time. Aluko's shot was deflected just over Howard's bar by Distin, and Faye almost headed in the following corner, Everton looking disturbingly fragile in defence.
The pace and accuracy of passing needed to play the Martinez way was proving a challenge as Everton tried to build with steady pressure after the break. Lukaku was not getting much service as Rosenior collapsed clutching his hamstring. Barkley won a corner but Osman's centre was intercepted and Osman took action that earned him a yellow card with a professional foul. Livermore came close as Osman was replaced by Pienaar on 56 mins.
And seconds later a lovely flick off a good if slightly deflected Mirallas cross saw the South African score a very nice goal as the heavens opened.
It was helter-skelter at times as Hull sought to break up Everton's play... with a little too much success, When Hull got a couple of corners, they again won the balls in but failed to capitalize. Kone then replaced the tiring Lukaku.
Sagbo made a very dangerous challenge for a loose ball with Jagielka, as they continued to cause Everton problems but a good break looked to see Kone set up nicely for his first Everton goal, only for him to lash it at the post with McGregor beaten. He then had a second bit e of the cherry but McGregor patted his shot down and away.
Mirallas should have made of a free-kick won by Pienaar, as Hull gave away another corner that Distin could not direct goalwards, Everton looked to play out the final minutes, Baines winning a free-kick off a classic obstruction by Elmohamady, but the intention was half-hearted with only three blue shirts in the area.
Everton are back at Goodison Park following the test at Manchester City a fortnight ago and the international break with Hull City the visitors as the Blues bid to reestablish their momentum in the Premier League.
Roberto Martinez has the task of getting his charges back to winning ways after the disappointing defeat at the Etihad Stadium, but his squad will be one member lighter given that his sizeable contingent of travelling internationals did not escape their duties unscathed.
Darron Gibson's season could be over before it has even really begun after he ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament playing for the Republic of Ireland against Kazakhstan, a setback that makes the deadline-day acquisition of Gareth Barry all the more astute. The 25 year-old will undergo surgery to mend his knee and faces a long road back that, given his protracted recovery from a separate knee issue between August and this month, makes it unlikely he will see action again this season.
It also makes keeping Barry fit that much more important given the paucity of reliable resources in defensive midfield, a fact illustrated against City where the Blues' centre was exploited to decisive effect by Manuel Pellegrini's men. The City loanee has performed impressively since arriving on loan and had made the starting berth in front of the back four his own and Martinez will be glad to have him back in the starting XI this weekend.
One player who still won't feature is Steven Pienaar; neither will Antolin Alcaraz. Both players are continuing gradual recoveries from their respective injuries, but Martinez expects the South African back next week for the trip to Aston Villa. Alcaraz is, the manager explained at his pre-match press conference, about three weeks away from being available to make his competitive Everton debut.
Barry's return is likely to be the only change from the team that started at City, with Steven Naismith the man expected to make way. That would leave Leon Osman and James McCarthy with greater license to get forward to support Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and on-fire striker, Romelu Lukaku.
The Blues may have lost their unbeaten record last weekend but they remain on the coat-tails of the Premier League pace-setters, two points off Chelsea in third and four points off the leaders.
Martinez's challenge will be to shore up a defence that has conceded nine goals in the last four matches in all competitions. As unsettling is the fact that the dominant, possession-based approach that the Spaniard has gone to such great lengths to introduce has faltered a little, particularly in the last two games.
Newcastle were allowed to fight their way back into contention of a game that looked well beyond them at the halfway stage three weeks ago while City had the lion's share of the Blues' last outing. The latter scenario was not unexpected but Everton were unusually profligate in possession and correcting that is something the manager will hopefully have focused on over the last couple of weeks.
It will be important given the lack of fear Hull have shown since returning to the top flight after four seasons in the Championship. The Tigers were hammered 5-1 by Everton the last time these two sides met but Martinez will not be expecting them to be such pushovers this time. Since losing to City away, Steve Bruce's side are unbeaten and they showed tremdendous pluck and resolve to come back from 2-1 down to beat Newcastle at St James's Park in their last game on the road.
With none of the six teams above playing each other, Everton will be hoping for some of their rivals to slip up, allowing them to move back into the top four if they can get the victory that their superiority suggests they should.
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* Everton deducted 6 points for PSR breachView full table