Sometimes you just need to grind out a win. Somehow...anyhow... a lucky richochet off someone's backside if that's
what it takes. There may have been an element of fortune about Romelu Lukaku's early winner at Selhurst Park today, and Phil Jagielka's clearance from under his own crossbar may have been effected with maybe an inch to spare – thumbs up for goal line
technology! – but there wasn't much fortuitous about Everton's first win in seven matches.
This was a determined performance that proved a Roberto Martinez team can put on a resolute defensive stand to rival those of the David Moyes days and grind out a narrow, unattractive but essential victory. Given Crystal Palace's recent rejuvenation and the Blues' own dreadful run since beating QPR at Goodison seven weeks ago, a draw would have sufficed but, having snatched an early lead, Everton were able to stifle any resurgence in this contest from Alan Pardew's men.
That was no mean feat. Palace had scored six goals in their last two games and come from behind to win their last three and, prior to the goalless draw against West Brom, the Blues' last Premier League clean sheet was against Swansea at the start of November. Not only that, in the face of a play-the-percentages, second-ball team like their hosts, this could have been a nightmare for an Everton defence that has struggled at times this season to deal with aerial bombardment from the flanks and set-pieces.
With John Stones in the back four, though, and Joel Robles growing in confidence with every appearance, Martinez's outfit has made itself very difficult to beat since the disaster at Hull on New Year's Day. And apart from some nervy spells in the opening quarter of an hour, they largely repelled everything that Palace threw at them. That bodes very well for the remainder of the season and should keep any lingering danger of getting sucked into the dogfight below at bay.
Today was expected to be the day that James McCarthy returned to the side after a month on the sidelines with hamstring problems. Martinez had declared him fit last week but in the end he didn't travel with the squad, perhaps to keep him fresh for the Goodison derby looming next weekend. A vastly-improved display by Gareth Barry and another tenacious, if somewhat mercurial, performance by Muhamed Besic ensured that the Irishman's absence wasn't felt as keenly as it has been in recent weeks.
That the manager didn't elect to play all three across central midfield was ultimately a boon to the team's overall shape – with Aiden McGeady and Kevin Mirallas deployed on the flanks and Ross Barkley dropped back to the bench, Everton looked more balanced than they have for many a game and it showed in greater fluidity going forward.
It was, truth be told, still a fairly ragged showing at times in the attacking third of the field, with killer instinct still lacking and the final ball found wanting but, as it turned out, they needed to get it right only once and they did so in just the second minute. Stones threaded a pass down the right channel and through a huge hole in the home defence for Steven Naismith whose low cross into the six-yard box was pushed away from goal by Julian Speroni but into the path of Lukaku who converted in front of goal with just 114 seconds on the clock.
Typically, Palace responded almost immediately and when Damien Delaney out-jumped Stones to meet a long free kick and Robles hesitated, Dwight Gayle stole in to flick the ball into the empty goal. Thankfully, Jagielka was there to hook it off the line and preserve the lead. Robles again flapped at a subsequent corner but when the ball fell to Yaya Sonogo, Stones was there to charge down his shot.
In hindsight, if the game was going to slip from Everton's grasp, it was going to happen during that first quarter of an hour when poor decision-making and nervy defending threatened to let the home side in. Delaney took advantage of too much space wide on the Palace left and he picked out Chamakh, the Moroccan international defly side-stepped Phil Jagielka's sliding tackle but Stones lunged towards his shot and deflected it over the bar.
Everton settled again, though, and when Besic was chopped down by Chamakh in a dangerous area outside the Palace box, Leighton Baines fired a direct free kick disappointingly over the bar before Lukaku collected the Bosnian's nicely-weighted pass and cut it back for Naismith but he skied his first-time effort.
It was to be a feature of the game but the Blues were sending too many passes astray in midfield for comfort. Thankfully, with their usual tormentor Yannick Bolasie on international duty, Jason Puncheon lively but slightly off his game, and Martinez's back line in obdurate mood, Palace weren't able to punish them.
At the other end, Lukaku was charged with leading the line in the hold-up role he doesn't really relish but he worked tirelessly and he might have done better with a couple of good openings late in the first half were he not battling one of those days when his first touch consistently let him down.
The second half followed more or less the same pattern – Everton not quite able to keep and control possession in their customary manner and allowing pressure to build on their back line but the defence holding it all together impressively to fend of Palace's advances. As a potentially key weapon in the derby and an injury risk regardless, Mirallas was expendable by the midway point of the second period and he was replaced by Bryan Oviedo.
It wasn't until the final 15 minutes or so that the game started to open up further and more chances for the Blues to register only their second shot on target arrived. Lukaku went flying in stretching to meet McGeady's cross but couldn't make contact and referee Roger East waved away appeals for a penalty despite Scott Dann's obvious handball that prevented Besic's powerful shot from troubling Speroni in hte 83rd minute.
Two minutes later, Lukaku rampaged away on the counter once more and ignored Seamus Coleman's intelligent run in favour of laying it back to Naismith but his shot deflected behind. Stones's header from the resulting corner was cleared to the edge of the box where McGeady dispossessed his man and whipped a curling shot aimed for the far corner but Speroni pushed it away at full stretch.
Two minutes after that, Lukaku bore down on the Palace defence again and hammered a right-foot shot into the siden-netting before McGeady engineered a gilt-edged chance to wrap things up in stoppage time but with three better options open to him in front of goal, he went for glory and ballooned a dreadful shot high into the stands from the angle.
Ultimately, despite managing just those two efforts on target, albeit only one fewer than their hosts, and forcing only one corner, Everton had the better chances to score and defended better on the day. As such, the victory was a deserved one and it will hopefully provide another rung on the ladder of this slow ascent back to some sort of normality of performances, confidence and results.
If it was still worthwhile comparing the Everton of last season to this, you could dwell on the profligacy in possession and the untidiness of the final ball that prevented Martinez's men from winning this game more comfortably. With the Blues' reality now one of consolidating a position of safety in the League table and timing their own resurgence with the resumption of the Europa League, though, the only thing that mattered was gaining three points from a notoriously difficult place to earn them and taking the positives from what was, effectively, a fifth match without defeat.
With the benefit of a week's worth of warm-weather training, Everton return to action this weekend with a trip to Selhurst Park and a match that has assumed uncomfortable significance for the Blues' season. McCarthy is still not fit enough to play; McGeady displaces Barkley.
Everton got off to a great start, Naismith crossing low and the ball flying in off Lukaku after Speroni parried it onto his body 3 yards out within just two minutes of the kick-off.
From a Palace corner, Gayle got in front of Robles and came so close to scoring before Jagielka produced a tremendous goal-line clearance of the line. There then followed a crazy sequence of play in the Everton box, in which Palace incredibly failed to equalize as Everton's defending
Mirallas gave away a free-kick and more dreadful defending was exhibited coupled with a failure to retain the ball as the visitors moved forward and Stones was very lucky to block a goalbound shot from Chamakh.
After 15 mins and a worrying spell of passing across the back ended with Baines hoofing long and straight out for a goalkick. Beseic was fouled and Baines, who had been limping, scampered up to claim the shot but could not keep it down. Chance wasted.
At the other end, Coleman and Chamakh clashed heads going for an aerial ball, the Moroccan coming off by far the worst, blood everywhere from a bashed nose. After extended treatment on the field, he was stretchered off and new signing Jordan Mutch took his place.
Everton had plenty of possession but really showed limited forward impetus, Lukaku eventually getting the ball out to Mirallas but the cross was poor. In the next attack, Lukaku laid a nice ball back to Naismith whose attempted shot was absolutely abysmal, skied yards over the bar. There was better tempo in the next attack until Baines put his cross in over everyone.
Puncheon pulled a tremendous shot out of very little, Robles getting down well to parry behind for a corner, Palace taking a while to get back in the game after losing Chamakh.
Despite scoring, Lukaku's ball control was as bad as ever at times, the ball simply not sticking to him whenever he as under pressure. Naismith played a great ball forward for Lukaku who should have strode forward but his touch was simply shocking and the glorious chance evaporated in an instant.
Everton looked horrible at the back whenever they were put under any pressure, but Robles was doing his job well enough, claiming most aerial crosses confidently. Lukaku found himself isolated wide left and could do nothing with the ball and Palace were attacking again, Puncheon firing just a foot or so over the Everton bar.
It was pretty scrappy fare after the restart, Palace of course determined to run at Everton, who continued to piss-fart about with the ball, putting Speroni's goal under zero threat since the early and very fortuitous breakthrough. At the other end, Sanogo looked to finish a cross that curled away from him as Everton had to pull the stops out in defense... not all that convincingly, Gayle lashing well over.
McGeady produced a rare moment of quality, skipping to the byline and crossing well to Lukaku's head but the leap was more bear-like than salmon-like as the ball bounced harmlessly off the top of his head.
Martinez decide to change things up a gear, bringing on Oviedo in place of... no-one, as he had a re-think after Pardew beat him to it, Zaha on for Kelly. Coleman got in front of Gayle to prevent an almost certain goal. Oviedo finally replaced Mirallas who had really done very little of note.
McArthur had a poke at Robles, who was becoming a more commanding figure, with Everton holding off the efforts of the home side, and looking to get the ball forward with a little more zest – a great move with Besic, McGeady playing in a good low cross first time, but just a foot in front of Lukaku, who missed the chance to wrap things up.
Barry was lucky not to see his 10th yellow for numerous clumsy fouls, the first card going to Oviedo after some free-kick silliness (time-wasting?) as Everton moved into the final 10 minutes with a one-goal lead and a precious clean sheet...
There was a big shout from the traveling Blues fans after a Besic shot hit Dann's hand but it would have been harsh. Everton finally started playing something approaching attacking football, winning their first and only corner, and McGeady driving in a superb curling strike that Speroni parried with an spectacular one-handed save ? perhaps the only moment of real quality in the entire game.
Naismith and Lukaku attacked with a two-on-two breakaway but the Big Man could only trouble the side-netting. Kone made a late appearance as sub for Lukaku in the 4 mins of added time. Somehow, Baines got booked for dissent as referee Roger East initially denied the substitution.
McGeady did brilliantly down the right to beat his man and advance along the byline but, with too much time and only Kone in among a throng of Palace defenders, he went for glory from a very narrow angle and all-too-predictably missed the target completely.
Everton incredibly held out to not only win, but to win with a clean sheet, and hopefully reverse a dreadful run of form that had many fans fearing relegation. The defence did its job, no matter how unconvincing they looked at times. Will this give them confidence to finally "be themselves"? Tune in for next week's derby bloodbath!!!
With the benefit of a week's worth of warm-weather training, team bonding and inward reflection, Everton return to action this weekend for a match that has assumed uncomfortable significance for the club's season as they hover over the escalating scrap to beat the drop at the bottom of the Premier League.
A trip to Selhurst Park to meet a rejuvenated Crystal Palace will not have been high on Roberto Martinez's list of optimal fixtures after the turgid stalemate against West Bromwich Albion in their last outing at Goodison Park but it's chance for manager and players alike to show that they have the stomach to fight their way back to respectability in the League and then continue their fine form in Europe.
The Blues come into this fixture in 12th place in the table, a position that is deceptively comfortable if you ignore the four meagre points that separate them from the bottom three. Palace, like the Toffees' last opponents, West Brom, have already been forced into a change of manager this season and, yet, they will start the day level on points with Everton.
It brings into sharp focus just how poor Martinez's side have been this season and how urgent is the need to start putting points on the board, not least because the Merseyside derby and a trip to Chelsea loom around the corner.
With no new faces gracing a squad that is now a man lighter following Samuel Eto'o's departure from Sampdoria, the task of carving out what would be only a second win in 14 matches in all competitions falls to the same personnel whose bewildering underperformance has created such dire straits, albeit with perhaps one returning absentee.
Having been declared fit by his manager during the team's Qatar training camp, James McCarthy could make his long-awaited return to the team after missing the past month with a hamstring injury. The recurrence of the complaint and the stop-start nature of his season mean that the club's medical staff have been cautiously nursing him back to fitness but even if he doesn't make the starting XI, he will likely be in the squad.
Should he start, it throws up the question of who would make way in midfield given that Gareth Barry's place in the side seems impervious to form and Muhamed Besic has been growing impressively into his defensive midfield role playing in McCarthy's stead.
Given how willing and able the Bosnian was to get forward and link the play or take shots on goal where his teammates seemed shy, it would not be a surprise to see either Besic retain his place and be pushed slightly forward or for Barry to drop back into a central defensive trio between John Stones and Phil Jagielka.
In either case, Ross Barkley would be the likely casualty but there are plenty of Evertonians who feel the beleaguered midfielder could do with a break from the intense scrutiny that is visibly affecting his form at the moment. A chance to make an impact off the bench as he did against Manchester City eight weeks ago might be just what he needs.
Kevin Mirallas will also be assessed for inclusion after being withdrawn at half time against the Baggies for what his manager said was a hamstring complaint. The Belgian had also complained of pain in the ankle he injured against QPR in mid-December but he should be fit enough to play some part this weekend. Aiden McGeady would be the obvious candidate to deputise should he not make it.
The rest of the side will likely be unchanged, with Joel Robles continuing in goal in place of the injured Tim Howard, where he has been growing in confidence with each passing match, and Steven Naismith playing off Romelu Lukaku up front.
For their part, Palace, on their patch, will pose typically difficult opposition. Buouyed by the return of former player Alan Pardew as manager, the Eagles are unbeaten in six matches since losing at home to Southampton on Boxing Day and are in ominously impressive goalscoring form.
They put four past Dover in the FA Cup, beat Tottenham 2-1 and have won their last two games 3-2. In each of those last three games, they came from behind to win which suggests that even if Everton could get off to a quick start, their hosts will not be easy to to repress.
It is unquestionably going to be a difficult game but if the Blues can show the sort of spirit that almost saw them past West Ham with 10 men in the cup replay earlier this month, then a victory is not beyond them. Defeat, of course, would ratchet up the pressure on Martinez and further reduce his margin for error in a congested bottom half of the table.
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