Everton notched their first Premier League win in a month and their first clean sheet since 11th January thanks to Romelu Lukaku's 10th goal of the season. The Belgian striker marked his return from a month out with an ankle injury with the winning goal nine 10 minutes from time to help the Blues to the double over West Ham United this season.
Lukaku had made a similarly decisive mark on the return fixture at Upton Park in September, heading home a late goal to win a thrilling contest, and he was on hand this time around to provide the killer finish that Everton have been lacking in recent weeks.
The three points were richly deserved on the balance of play – Roberto Martinez's side had almost 70% of the possession and almost four times as many efforts on goal than the Hammers over the 90 minutes – but struggled to carve out enough clear-cut opportunities, particularly in the first half.
Roared on by an increasing fervour from the stands as the contest heated up after half-time, the Blues were eventually able to break West Ham down and make their superiority count but it looked for long periods as though it was going to be another afternoon of frustration.
Lukaku's hotly-anticipated return dominated the pre-match build-up but the striker's mild chest infection tipped Martinez towards starting him on the substitutes' bench – prudent given his four-week layoff and the looming cup quarter-final at Arsenal next weekend. That meant Steven Naismith being rewarded again for his recent efforts but this time – again with the FA Cup in mind, perhaps – it was Gerard Deulofeu and not Kevin Mirallas patrolling behind and to the right of him. The Belgian midfielder was named among the substitutes alongside Ross Barkley and Aiden McGeady and didn't end up figuring, thereby ensuring he will be fresh for The Emirates next Saturday.
No doubt aware of the importance of three points given how they have fallen away from the Champions League chase in recent games, Everton began with vigour, purpose and an impressive tenacity to fight for every loose ball. Sam Allardyce was forced to mash away ferociously on his chewing gum as his players barely got a touch of the ball in the opening few minutes and escaped when Leon Osman's flick-on from Leighton Baines' cross flashed too quickly past Naismith and the Scot was unable to make a full connection on the ball in front of goal.
Barry dragged a 20-yard shot wide after being invited to shoot by the retreating Hammers defence and Steven Pienaar, all neat touches and flicks with his partner, Baines, down the left, choked an effort that dribbled wide from a similar distance.
In between, the Hammers had demonstrated the threat they could pose on the break when they raced away from a cleared corner at their end but they were denied by, of all players, Deulofeu who sped back and made a last-ditch tackle to avert the danger.
It was Everton who remained dominant, though and Naismith forced a save from Adrian with a driven shot from the angle and Deulofeu fired two shots wide of the 'keeper's right-hand post: the first lacking in conviction as he was closed down by the defender; the second the finish to a mesmerising run along the edge of the box that took him past three white shirts but he was unable to bend his shot inside the upright.
At the other end, Tim Howard had really only been called into serious action once when he got down to block at the feet of Kevin Nolan and the contest was poised for a more concerted Everton effort after half time.
They came within inches of catching West Ham cold a minute after the restart. A trademark Baines run on the overlap saw him cut the ball back to Pienaar in space in the penalty area but he could only plant his first-time shot on the face of the post. Five minutes later, the South African was presented with a virtual carbon-copy opportunity but this time his shot careened high over the crossbar.
Presumably as part of their gameplan, the visitors attempted to raise their game and pinch the goal that would have been the catalyst for serious consternation among the Goodison faithful. Andy Carroll, a surprise 28th-minute sub for Carlton Cole, hammered a shot straight at Howard following a rare error by John Stones, but the American was able to push his effort over the bar. Then, Kevin Nolan curled an effort just wide via a slight nick off Gareth Barry.
For all their dominance, though, Everton were strugging with an all-too familiar lack of numbers and genuine threat in the final third. With Barry and James McCarthy operating in lock-step in central midfield and neither player willing to push on into the area, too much of the play was going back and forth in front West Ham's defence.
It wasn't until Lukaku was introduced at Osman's expense with an hour gone that things started to open up a little more, with the striker willing to take defenders on and pull them out of position to create a few more seams for the likes of Pienaar, Baines and Deulofeu to exploit. Still they were being contained fairly well by Allardyce's defence, although Sylvain Distin probably should have done better when he met a Baines free kick in front of goal and could only hook the ball well wide when he might have just thrown himself at it with his head.
A couple more non-threatening long-range efforts from West Ham signalled that the game was there to be won by Everton if they could just make the breakthrough and, sure enough, they did in the 81st minute. Unsurprisingly it was Baines who provided the crucial assist from a patient move down the Blues' left and it was his low centre that found Lukaku hovering with
intent near the penalty spot. A first-time, side-foot shot past Adrian later and it was 1-0. Welcome back, Romelu!
The Blues smelled blood and pushed on for a second, Lukaku smashing a half-volley narrowly over from a tight angle and Barkley, a late change for Naismith, also went close with a left-footer from 20 yards but the single goal proved enough as Everton ran the clock down with their passing game.
The win moves Everton back into sixth place above Manchester United, still some nine points off fourth place, and establishes some momentum ahead of the Arsenal tie. Though hopes of the top four remain a little wild at this point, anything can happen over the last 11 games and Martinez knows his team just need to keeping putting wins on the board and see how things shake out.
Edging their way past a West Ham team who came to Goodison on the back of a four-game winning streak was important and it sets things up nicely for the visit of Cardiff City in the next League game in two weeks' time.
Keeping Lukaku fit and hungry will be key, as will more playing time for Deulofeu who had a hit-and-miss afternoon but showed plenty of the lovely touches and inventiveness that made him so effective before he was injured in December. With room still for Barkley to recapture his form and Mirallas gradually maturing into a more consistent player, there is every reason to believe Martinez when he says that the final quarter of the campaign could be his team's best period of the season.
Deulofeu and Naismith lead the attack while Romelu Lukaku returns but joins Ross Barkley on the bench for Everton against West Ham United. Jagielka is out with John Stones preferred as his replacement over Antolin Alcaraz. Also on the bench for the first time: Tyias Browning, a graduate of the Everton Academy.
Everton kicked off in the sunshine and held the ball well in midfield to craft the first penetration of the West Ham penalty area but it would not run for Naismith. The second attack saw Baines swing in a great ball that Osman flicked on and Naismith almost got a follow-on header that glanced wide.
Stones needed to do well defending against Cole after giving the ball away as Everton built again with plenty of purpose but little pace. Barry took a poke from distance but his effort was well wide. The players seemed to know more forward speed was required but this resulted in a couple of overhit balls that were counterproductive to the possession ethos.
The first corner came on 10 mins and didn't look that bad but West Ham swept up the filed and it needed Deulofeu to play defender and deny Nolan a golden chance to give West Ham a corner. Deulofeu then went on a solo run but crucially overplayed one touch and the hope of something from a quick counter was gone,
McCarthy and Nolan went in hard for a 50/50 ball, McCarthy coming off worst and requiring treatment. Pienaar was next to 'shoot' although it looked more like a feeble pass in the end as Everton were trying to vary their slow and ponderous possession play to gain entry to the packed West Ham area.
Deulofeu was still a little rusty, giving the ball away and that saw West Ham finally play a part after 85% possession stats for the toothless Blues who were struggling to find a way through to Adrian's goal. Naismith finally got in and tried to force his shot home at the near post but Adrian patted it behind. Two corners came to nothing then Deulofeu again lost possession to Nolan.
A better move saw Baines get closer but close attention on Deulofeu prevented the shot. Stones looked to release the Spaniard down the right but McCartney had the measure of him as Allardyce somewhat surprisingly changed out Cole for Carroll with less than 30 mins played and Nolan put pressure on Howard in close. Tomkins saw yellow for a lunge in on Osman. Taylor fired well wide for the Hammers.
A patch of really scrappy play in midfield saw West Ham attack dangerously, the ball driven low across the Everton area. But at the other end, a Ronaldoesque Deulofeu won another corner, poorly taken by Baines. A more open move with Pienaar won another corner left that was swung out for Barry, but he could not head it anywhere near the target.
Deulofeu did better to get a low cross in on Adrian, then he tried to do it all himself, beating four men and firing just inches wide as he seemed to be getting into his stride. Carroll injured himself somehow in a headed challenge, leading on McCarthy with his arm that incensed the Goodison faithful. Pienaar and Osman tried some fast interchange play that was a complete failure as the Everton crowd became increasingly frustrated with proceedings.
As the break approached, Everton pushed with more intention, Osman having a shot blocked. West Ham got a free-kick for a Stones challenge that won a corner after Demel clearly pushed Baines. Not a happy Blue crowd at the break...
Would Martinez make a change at the break. A resounding No. But it was a rip-roaring start to the second half, West Ham testing Howard's aerial skills at the far post. then a swift move down the left saw Pienaar hitting the post, and the rebound to Deulofeu should have been hammered home but he just passed it into Adrian's hands. At the other end, West Ham came very close to the opening goal.
Pienaar was floored by Demel and Deulofeu swung in the free-kick. Baines and Pienaar combined better after a soft penalty claim by Pienaar, but the South Africa's shot was this time well off target.At the other end, the ball came off Stones and Carroll lashed a ferocious shot that almost caught Howard napping as he parried it over for a corner. Some West Ham pressure ensued, Nolan having a shot deflected just wide of the far post. The Blues had to defend a couple of testing corners as Lukaku readied himself with the hour-mark approaching.
Some cute play by Deulofeu forced a corner with Lukaku replacing Osman before it was swung in, over the big man's head, but the corner had curled behind the line. Lukaku won the next Everton corner, taken short, Deulofeu trying to curl it in to the far corner.
The tempo of the game was a lot better but the number of West Ham bodies in the area thwarted every effort the Blues could devise. Demel fouled Pienaar for another free-kick wide left that was delivered superbly for Distin (not Lukaku!) but his control of he highball was non-existent as it bounced high and wide off his shin.
Much faster attacking though from Everton down the left, but Lukaku playing wide and crossing low... when it should be him in the middle to receive the ball! Perhaps the need for wing play to supply the big man was what Martinez saw as he swapped in McGeady for Deulofeu after Noble fired a shot over with barely 15 mins left.
Carroll was able to lash another shot toward the Everton goal, thankfully wide as the much more open game could not be called. From a questionable call on Baines, West Ham got a free-kick that Noble thankfully wasted as this difficult match entered its final phase looking like it would be West Ham's seventh 0-0 draw of the season.
But the simplest of moves, the easiest of plays, a low cross, a perfect supply ball in from Baines and Wham Bam! Thank you, West Ham!! A very well taken goal by Romelu Lukaku, finally breaking the interminable deadlock.
Finally, Everton could "be themselves" and played with more conviction and determination in the last few minutes. Baines tripped Carroll giving away a free-kick that Downing delivered nicely for Tim Howard to gather, while Lukaku tried to go for glory with a wayward shot well beyond the Hammers goal. A late corner in the dying seconds ended a very important win for the Blues.
With the home straight of the final 10 games of the Premier League season approaching and an FA Cup Quarter Final at Arsenal looming next weekend, Everton enter a crucial phase of their season as they prepare to welcome West Ham United to Goodison Park this weekend.
Just two wins from eight League games since the turn of the year, including potentially decisive defeats to two rival clubs for fourth place in Liverpool and Tottenham, has seen the Blues' Champions League challenge falter and last week's loss at Chelsea saw them slip out of the top six for the first time since November. There is also a yawning 11-point gap now between Roberto Martinez's side and that fourth qualifying spot for Europe's gravy train, although they have played a game less than the teams above them.
That makes Saturday's clash with the Hammers vital for Everton's European hopes but Sam Allardyce's men have been in improved form since their utter humiliation at the hands of Manchester City in the League Cup in January. A 9-0 aggregate defeat came on the heels of disaster in the FA Cup at Nottingham Forest where they were whipped 5-0 by the Championship side and it seemed as though Allardyce was just one more abject defeat away from the sack.
A hugely creditable – if somewhat miraculous, given Chelsea's shots-on-goal tally – goalless draw at Stamford Bridge at the end of January sparked a four-match winning streak, though, that culminated in a handsome 3-1 win over Southampton at Upton Park last weekend, one which lifted the East Londoners up to 10th in the table. They will arrive on Merseyside in good spirits and, as a physical side who like to get at their opponents, they will be no pushover.
Everton's biggest problem has been finding the net and a return of just six goals from those eight games since the end of 2013 tells its own story. Martinez was already struggling to get his team scoring enough goals prior to Romelu Lukaku's injury a month ago but, with neither Steven Naismith nor Kevin Mirallas able to provide a solution during his absence, much is expected of the Belgian as he makes his expected return to action this weekend.
Lukaku remains the Blues' top scorer, though, and his presence leading the forward line has been sorely missed given how much focus opposition defences are forced to put on him when he is playing. Goals are only part of what the 20 year-old brings to Martinez's team.
West Ham will no doubt be hoping he isn't pitched straight back into Everton's starting XI given how crucial he was in the return fixture in September – although he scored his emphatic winner with just five minutes having come on as a second-half substitute and it's possible he'll be eased in by his manager this time around.
Should he be named on the bench, Martinez will be restricted to the same attacking options as last weekend after Lacina Traore was ruled out with the hamstring injury that threatens his loan spell from Monaco. That will likely mean the continuation of the Mirallas-Naismith partnership, although the manager's team selection for the aborted Crystal Palace game suggests that he is apt to mix things up.
He has more options in midfield, with Gerard Duelofeu in need of playing time after two substitute appearances since returning from his own injury layoff and Aiden McGeady more fully fit than at any time since he arrived during the January transfer window.
And there's the question of Ross Barkley who has been visibly lacking match sharpness since being rushed back for the Anfield derby and whose confidence appears to now be suffering as a result. A starting berth this weekend would reinforce the manager's faith in him, faith that is well-placed given his form in the first half of the campaign, but it would not be without its risks to the 20 year-old's morale if things don't go well for him.
At the back, Phil Jagielka's absence with a hamstring injury will enforce at least one change on the team that started at Chelsea, with Antolin Alcaraz the likely deputy.
There isn a lot riding on this match for Everton, the first of a succession of must-win games if they are to realise their European dream this season. They are certainly going to have to be more incisiveness and direct in their approach in the final third than they have been on their travels but if they can make an early breakthrough, West Ham have shown that they can fall apart under pressure.
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* Everton deducted 6 points for PSR breachView full table