The trials of the mid-season grind continue to add wrinkles to Roberto Martinez's plans but his Everton side rolled past Norwich City today to jump back into the Premier League top four. Yet more setbacks on the injury front, most notably to Ross Barkley, enforced more changes to the manager's starting line-up but two superb strikes effectively sealed the game before an hour had elapsed and added another three crucial home points in quest for Champions League qualification.
A suspected broken toe for Barkley and the continued absence of Sylvain Distin was compounded by an apparent injury to Antolin Alcaraz that ruled him out before kick off, and Steven Pienaar added to the list of concerns when he was substituted with a suspected knock with 20 minutes to go. Everton shrugged off the disruption, though, and the margin of their lead even afforded Martinez the luxury of some experimentation with three at the back in what was a forgettable last quarter of an hour.
Aided by the return of Phil Jagielka, who moved to the left side of central defence to partner young John Stones, the Blues established their now customary grip on the game early in the first half. Seamus Coleman and Romelu Lukaku had similar left-foot efforts comfortably saved by John Ruddy in the Canaries' goal in the early going but the Belgian striker had the first real chance in the 12th minute.
His compatriot, Kevin Mirallas, whipped an excellent ball to the back post where Lukaku looked odds-on to score but a moment's hesitation, perhaps for fear of colliding with the upright, saw him head wide from a couple of yards out.
Norwich, who came into the match on a run of five games without a win, were ceding much of the possession to the home side but they carved out a gilt-edged chance for Gary Hooper with 15 minutes gone when he latched onto Whitaker's ball over the top but a poor first touch allowed Tim Howard to smother it at his feet and keep matters goalless.
Everton were enjoying plenty of room in which to operate in front of the visitors' back four and, after Mirallas had hammered a deflected shot over the bar from 25 yards and Baines had raked a left-footer wide from the edge of the box, great hold-up play by Lukaku help set up the opening goal.
Jagielka went into a meaty challenge in his own half that sent a high ball forward that Lukaku pulled down and held until Gareth Barry was able to join the attack from deep. The veteran midfielder collected the striker's pass, advanced into space ahead of him as the defence backed off before unleashing a laser-like effort that flew past Ruddy's despairing glove and inside the far post.
Everton were in the driving seat and looking comfortable but a 1-0 lead is a slender one in the modern-day top flight, as evidenced five minutes later when Norwich counter-attacked quickly and Ricky van Wolsvinkel, a scorer in the reverse fixture at Carrow Road on the opening day, forced a flying, one-handed save from Howard as he tried a curler from 20 yards.
The Blues always looked the more dangerous side, though, and they racked up a host of chances before half time on the back of some lovely football at times as they sought to extend their lead. Osman skied a good chance after Lukaku had seized on a loose ball by Van Wolsvinkel and Coleman also lashed the ball over from close range at the end of a sustained period of Everton pressure 10 minutes before the interval.
It was Norwich who might have scored on the stroke of half time, though. Stones had again been exhibiting composure beyond his years for much of the first half but he was booked in the 44th minute for a heavy challenge through Bradley Johnson and his mis-judgement of another lofted ball into the area almost let Hooper in a minute later. Howard came off his line quickly to close out the danger, although there was momentary chaos in the Everton defence with the American well out of his six-yard box but they got away with it.
The pattern of the first period continued in the second and James McCarthy's chance to notch his first goal for Everton looked to have arrived eight minutes after the restart but his shot was deflected over the bar and Mirallas wasted the resulting corner.
After Van Wolsvinkel had held off Stones and ballooned a shot over the bar, Everton doubled their advantage in the 58th minute when Baines was chopped down 25 yards from goal by Robert Snodgrass and Mirallas whipped the resulting free kick past Ruddy with precision.
2-0 looked to have become 3-0 seven minutes later when Lukaku raced onto a wonderful through-ball by Coleman, clipped the ball over the advancing Ruddy and slid the ball home as it skidded towards the byline but his "goal" was ruled out by the linesman's flag.
With Everton in clear control of the game, Martinez took the opportunity to withdraw Osman in favour of John Heitinga with 68 minutes gone and transition to a back three before Pienaar gingerly left the fray a couple of minutes later to be replaced by Steven Naismith. The result of the Blues' change in formation and Canaries boss Chris Hughton's own switch that introduced Nathan Redmond had a marked effect on the pattern of the game. Everton visibly lost their shape for a good 10 to 15 minutes and Redmond gave Coleman a couple of scares, not least when he skinned the Irishman and cut inside where Howard had to save the winger's shot with his feet.
Johnson then tried his luck with two decent long-range efforts as untidiness started to creep into Everton's play, Snodgrass came closest to setting up a nervy finale when he rose highest to meet a bouncing ball in the home area but his header bounced off the post, and Heitinga had to be alert to block a cross from the same player after he looked to have twisted his way past the Dutchman.
The Blues' defence held, though, and it was clear by around the 85th-minute mark that any fire Norwich had been extinguished, allowing Everton to resume their ascendancy and almost put the game completely to bed following excellent work by Naismith down the right touchline. He squirmed his way past Martin Olsson and into the clear but McCarthy was closed down as he met the Scot's square pass.
Three more vital points, then, on an afternoon when, again, all of Everton's rivals for the top four picked up maximum points. The result lifts Martinez's side back into fourth where they will stay if Liverpool lose at Stoke tomorrow but, importantly, it re-establishes momentum in the League following the draw at the Britannia Stadium on New Year's Day. Everton have more points now, after 21 games, than at any time in the Premier League era but the competition for places around them allows for no margin for error.
Though they should really have scored more, didn't make it through the 90 minutes without a period of untidy play and it was something of a learning experience for Stones – something that is vital for his development, particularly given the clean sheet – the standard of play was often terrific and McCarthy and Barry were relentless at times in the middle.
The nine-day break between now and the trip to West Bromwich Albion on the Monday after next will hopefully give some of those injured players time to recover but the manager will be more than happy at the seamless way in which his team has dealt with the chopping and changing of personnel in recent games and still kept putting points on the board.
It will also give Martinez time to pursue further additions to his squad than the one signing he has already completed this month; winger Aiden McGeady was paraded before the match today after signing from Spartak Moscow and, with Nikica Jelavic in talks with Hull City this weekend, striking reinforcements are set to follow.
Roberto Martinez has been forced to make changes as injuries make a deep cut in the squad of players he has available for this fixture with Norwich City. Barkley and Alcaraz are out but Jagielka returns, while one-time target Leroy Fer started for the visitors.
New signing Aiden McGeady was rather nervously paraded as the first new signing of the January transfer window, while Nikica Jelavic was nowhere to be seen, his move to Hull City about to be finalized.
Everton started brightly with good possession football and crisp passing despite some determined pressing from the visitors. Coleman tested John Ruddy early on with a low drive. Lukaku picked up the ball and had a poke too but it was really lame.
Mirallas delivered a superb ball in from the left for Lukaku at the far post, but the big man misread the curve on the ball and could not finish from 1 yard off the post. Osman was next to swing the ball across from the left but no-one could profit from it. Another excllent low cross from mirallas forced another corner, defended away.
At the other end, a pinpoint ong ball to Hooper almost caught out Howard before the one-way traffic toward Ruddy's goal was re-established. Baines was tackled for the first Everton corner, which he took from the left, very low, and it almost fell to a white-socked foot...
Mirallas decided to let fly, and won a corner off Bennett that Baines delivered well but no-one threatening. Baines then struck a low shot wide off a give and go with Barry. More penetration with Lukaku collecting a difficult ball and doing the perfect hold-up play for Barry to collect, surge forward, and hammer an unstoppable shot past Ruddy and inside the far post, and absolutely top-class strike to give Everton the lead.
Everton pressed for a second but a very quick break almost bought Norwich an equalizer, Van Wolfswinkel forcing Howard to make a really good save at full stretch to keep the ball out of the top corner. Barry played in a superb ball forcing another corner, as the Blues kept pressing. Another corner, more attacking, ending in a really poor shot from Osman, off a perfect Lukaku layback.
Mirallas swung in a lovely free-kick that seemed perfect for a free header by Lukaku but he seemed to misjudge it again. but it led to a remarkable sequence of attacking play with Norwich all over the place as the Blues moved the ball around their area brilliantly, trying to create the killer shot, which finally fell to Coleman, who tried to drive his shot up beyond Ruddy and just inside the angle but it went over instead of under the bar.
But the Norwich long ball almost caught the Blues out again after Stones was booked for a lunging tackle where he won the ball but followed through, catching the ankle. Howard was drawn to the edge of the array and Stones and to save the follow-up with Howard stranded.
On the whole, though, a really good first half from the Blues, some fantastic intricate passing going forward, the football an absolute joy to behold.
Everton continued in the same vein, a wonderful flowing move down the left and fine cross from Baines well worth a goal but neither Osman, Lukaku nor Coleman could finish it off. But there was always something about Norwich's play that posed a threat on the rare occasions they saw any possession.
More wonderful stuff saw Mirallas dribble back across the Norwich area to set up McCarthy whose shot was blocked. More marvellous stuff, a backheel from Pienaar and Mirallas scooping his shot miles over the bar. Van Wolfswinkel again got another chance off a good long ball. Just before the hour-mark, Baines went on long driving run before Bennett took him out, and Mirallas curled in the free-kick superbly just inside Ruddy's post and beyond the former Everton goalkeeper's despairing dive. Fabulous stuff from the Magnificent Blues.
Lukaku looked to have got behind the Norwich defence to catch a good deep ball forward, jink it past Ruddy and finish smartly in the Gwladys St net but it was deemed offside. Heitinga replaced Osman in his first league appearance of 2013-14. He was followed by Naismith, replacing Pienaar.
Norwich came into it a little more after the changes, Bradley Johnson twice coming close with long-range shots for Norwich. Snodgrass then hit the post with Howard beaten after another very crisp attacking move... and again, when they cut the Everton defence wide open but could not finish, with 10 minutes still left to play.
It became a much more even and much more scrappy final 15 mins, with the Blues suddenly unable to retain possession in the commanding way they had for so much of the game, while Norwich came so close to scoring. But Naismith got a chance to break into the Norwich area, choosing to cross instead of shooting. Time for some serious concentration and focus...
Everton got into the three minutes of added time without conceding, and transitioned to some ole football, moving the ball around the whole team to keep it out of the opposition's hands until Kevin Friend blew the final whistle, and the Blues moved smoothly up to 4th place in the Premier League.
Having enjoyed their first week-long break from action since mid-December, Everton are back in Premier League action this weekend with Norwich City the visitors as the Blues look to get back to winning ways following the New Year's Day draw at Stoke.
Roberto Martinez's men breezed into the FA Cup Fourth Round last Saturday with a 4-0 drubbing of Queens Park Rangers in another example of the evolution in style that the Spaniard has effected at Goodison Park that has really taken hold since the last time they faced the Canaries on the opening day.
Everton exhibited many aspects of the possession game that Martinez favours in that game last August but, though they went ahead in the second half, they couldn't hold the lead and ended up drawing 2-2. It was the first of the Blues' eight draws so far this season and turning those single points into three is a priority of the manager's for the second half of the campaign.
They face a team that has failed to live up the promise of manager Chris Hughton's summer spending which suggested that Norwich might be a greater force this term than they have been thus far. The likes of former Everton targert Leroy Fer, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and winger Nathan Redmond suggested that the East Anglians' squad might be strong enough to test the top half of the Premier League but they start this weekend just three points off the relegation zone having won just one of their last seven matches.
They did manage what Everton could not and that was win at Stoke but they have found goals hard to come by and that will hearten Martinez who has been served brilliantly by all of the four central defenders he has had to use so far, most recently Antolin Alcaraz and John Stones.
With Phil Jagielka ruled out and Sylvain Distin to be assessed over the next couple of days, that fledgeling partnership could well be deployed again but the respective performances by two players who hadn't started a Premier League game for the Blues prior to 29th December suggests that Martinez won't lose any sleep should the Frenchman be sidelined again.
Elsewhere in the line-up, Leighton Baines and Ross Barkley are doubts after picking up knocks in the last two matches, the former taking a knock to his recently broken toe and the latter suffering an unspecified minor injury in the FA Cup tie. As the manager expressed earlier the week, Gerard Deuofeu's hamstring strain was complicated by damage to the tendon but he remains on course for a recovery by the end of the month.
Though Martinez has clearly set out his stall to approach every game as a winnable one, home or away, the continuation of Everton's Champions quest starts with making the most of home field advantage. With things so tight in the top eight, every three-point haul is vital and anything less than a win against a Norwich side who are struggling for form would be regarded as a big disappointment.
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