A glossy victory, four goals, quality football and a Gareth Barry assist – no you are not dreaming, this was what we witnessed from our Everton side last night.
To date, Everton’s Europa League campaign had been full of hope; we’ve seen some excellent displays, notable victories over good European sides and we topped our Group after three wins, two draws and just one defeat. Our continental performances have been the one constant, positive factor from this season and after more than two months of domestic disappointments since our last Europa League fixture it was our chance to continue our European form when we travelled to Switzerland to take on Young Boys in the last 32 of the competition last night.
Martinez’ side would have to adapt to different surroundings at the Stade de Suisse, taking on an in-form Young Boys on an artificial pitch and hoping to come away with a positive result ahead of the return leg at Goodison in seven days’ time. Young Boys have a proud record on home turf and judging by their record in the Group Stages they appeared to offer the Blues a tough challenge on the next stop of their European adventure. The hosts currently sit in second place in the Swiss League and they also put in some impressive displays throughout their Group Stage campaign, but Everton went with a game plan to take the game to the hosts, and they did just that in emphatic fashion.
Roberto went with McCarthy and the soon-to-be suspended Barry in the middle of the park, he also stuck with Naismith and Mirallas either side of Lukaku and deployed Ross Barkley just behind in a central position. At the back Oviedo continued to deputise for the injured Baines and Besic took a place on the bench for this one. From the off the shape of the team looked good, our interchange passing and positioning was a notable plus, and we looked in confident spirits.
In the opening ten minutes, Ross saw a lot of the ball in midfield and it was he who linked up with Lukaku to create the first opportunity. It was certainly a sign of things to come. There was to be no high-tempo start from the home side and instead it was the visitors who looked to control possession and create going forward. Oviedo was finding himself advanced and his early balls were of a high quality, and overall we looked well up for the challenge. But after an initial spell of looking the most likely to take the lead, we found ourselves behind with Young Boys’ first passage of possession and first shot on target. It was French striker Guillaume Hoarau that gave the hosts the lead, after some statue-esque defending from our lads at the back and a goalkeeper who was massively out of position. Hoarau’s curling effort beat Tim Howard to his left but the American was yards off his line and left a huge gap for the striker to aim at. It was disappointing to go behind after such a bright start but thankfully Everton didn’t feel sorry for themselves for long and immediately looked to get back into the game.
On 23 minutes, Romelu Lukaku drew the Toffees level with a brilliant header at the near post. Everton were having some joy down both flanks with Oviedo and Coleman pushing on in the early stages, but it was Gareth Barry who found himself in possession in an advanced, left-sided position and it was he who crossed invitingly for Rom to meet at the near post and steer his effort past the sprawling Young Boys ‘keeper. It was a great header and Lukaku picked his spot well. We were level, and without sounding biased it was very much deserved.
Everton continued to press, there was no signs of settling for a draw or slowing the game down – we looked hungry across our team and pinned Young Boys back. Within just four minutes of our equaliser, the Toffees were at it again when Seamus Coleman – who hasn’t scored for what felt like a lifetime – put us 2-1 ahead at the back post. If ever a move summed up the whole of last season, this was it. Finally we saw echoes of the Everton we know, and a move that we know this Everton side are capable of. Again we were having success down the left and after Oviedo supplied Naismith, the Scot worked the ball well with Barkley to carve out the opening that resulted in the opportunity which Coleman could simply not miss. Naismith’s movement all night was impeccable, and it was he who supplied the cross from the left hand side that avoided the Young Boys defence and Romelu Lukaku in the process, but found its way to Coleman who pounced to finish like a seasoned poacher at the back stick. We had the lead, and it had been a result of a fantastic footballing move. There was Everton bodies everywhere, the home side didn’t know what was going on, our slick passing confused the opposition and once Coleman had put us in front we never looked back.
Chances for the home side came few and far between and after taking the lead, we looked increasingly dominant. Young Boys were becoming frustrated as Everton’s game plan continued to look effective and likely to cause further damage. Barkley was bossing the game in the final third and Lukaku, Mirallas and Naismith could not be contained by the home side’s defence. In midfield, Barry and McCarthy were excellent, and at the back Jagielka and Stones were marshalling well and our full-backs were advancing at every opportunity. It had been a while since I’d seen us expressing ourselves so much, and I have to admit it was refreshing to watch us toy with our European opposition. But for all of our dominance, if it wasn’t for Tim Howard’s excellent save from Hoarau’s effort then we could have found ourselves level just after the half hour mark. With the two opportunities Young Boys had been limited to they’d scored from one and came very close with another. However, thankfully on the second occasion Howard was equal to Hoarau’s effort and Everton remained in front. Hoarau was a Young Boys best outlet, and he is without doubt their best player, you got the feeling if there was to be any sort of fight back from the home side then it would come through the Frenchman.
There was to be no fight back, and before the half time whistle increased their lead through that man Lukaku again. Our success down the flanks was again a factor in our third goal, just as it was in our two previous, as Oviedo neatly back-heeled to Barry who supplied Lukaku on 39 minutes to make it 3-1. Oviedo’s link up play and distribution throughout the opening 45 minutes was impressive, and his touch opened up the chance for Barry – who got his second assist of the night, albeit via a deflection – and Lukaku did the rest as the Young Boys defenders expectantly asked for an offside flag which never came. Again our fluidity had opened up the home side, and Lukaku looked in deadly form in front of goal. Before the referee drew the first half to a close Sanogo came close to getting a goal back when his effort through a congested penalty area was deflected onto the post excellently by James McCarthy. Although we had a 3-1 lead and were dominating the game, in reality Young Boys had two glorious chances in the first half and could have found themselves level, but thankfully for Everton they hadn’t took their opportunities like we had and we went into the break with a two-goal advantage.
Early in the second half there was an incident when Ross Barkley was tackled dangerously by Sanogo and the Blues midfielder reacted and was booked. Although it was all handbags I liked the fact that Ross stood up for himself and his team mates stood up for each other, we simply haven’t seen enough of that this season. Barkley doesn’t usually fancy confrontation or throw himself into tackles but last night we saw a lad brimming with confidence and emotion and it was evident in his game. As fans we like to see passion, hunger and desire and in a weird way I believe his reaction to that tackle summed up his performance last night overall – he was well up for it.
Shortly before the hour-mark Oviedo unfortunately picked up a hamstring injury and he went off to be replaced by Luke Garbutt. Oviedo had played excellently both defensively and going forward and he actually injured himself during a piece of quality defending. It was a shame to see him come off and hopefully he won’t be out too long. Garbutt slotted in at left back and literally seconds after his substitution another of our players went down – James McCarthy. Instead of either side knocking the ball out of touch, play continued and eventually Ross Barkley found himself in possession and on the counter attack. Young Boys expected us to knock the ball out of play but we didn’t, Barkley played an inch-perfect through ball to the onrushing Lukaku who chipped over the ‘keeper to complete his hat-trick and give Everton a 4-1 lead. Not only was the goal and assist both brilliant, it was the simple fact that we didn’t knock the ball out of play that has satisfied most Evertonians who saw the game. The Everton of this season would be too nice, too thoughtful and knock the ball out of play, but instead on this occasion we carried on, and although a player was down injured at the time there is no rule that you have to kick the ball out, especially if the player is one of your own, so Barkley had every right to continue and I am certainly glad he did so.
We now had a three goal advantage but less than five minutes after increasing our lead the hosts had an opportunity to reduce the deficit. John Stones, who had been so reliable all night, lost possession inside the area and then stupidly man-handled Hoarau who had dispossessed him and headed towards goal. I know the decision might seem harsh to many Blues but when you be physical inside the box these days, especially when tackling from behind, the referee is only going to give one decision and unfortunately for us the official saw it as a clear goal scoring chance and so Stones was then dismissed. With half an hour to go you couldn’t help but worry that the home side would get the wind in their sails if they got a second and were up against ten men, but thankfully Hoarau skied his penalty and the score remained at 4-1. We could breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Following the penalty incident we had a couple of massive chances to further increase our lead and continued to play as well as we had done, even with just ten men. Garbutt provided a chance on a plate for Lukaku who fluffed his lines and the Belgian frontman did the same again when met with an aerial chance and another through ball opportunity. Although he had a hat trick, Lukaku could have had many more on the night. Martinez made two late changes when Atsu and Alcaraz were introduced for Lukaku and McCarthy and we continued to keep the ball and work the home side. I thought Atsu looked lively when he came on and Gareth Barry marshalled the midfield right through to the end, as Everton saw out an impressive win away from home.
Once again we had shone in Europe, and this performance stands out a mile in comparison to what we’ve seen from this Everton side this season. I thought Roberto was tactically spot on, and our energy levels and willingness to create space and chances was a brilliant sight to see. We passed the ball well, looked deadly going forward and well-organised throughout the team. Stones was brilliant and although he was a bit naïve in getting himself sent off I noticed how he was being vocal to his team mates and marshalling that back line – the perfect successor to his central defensive partner Phil Jagielka. The much-maligned (by myself and many others) Gareth Barry was brilliant last night and hardly put a foot wrong, and his defensive partner McCarthy was typically full of running doing the ground work for the cause. The offensive trio of Mirallas, Naismith and Lukaku were superb in their movement, especially Naismith who worked tirelessly for the Toffees. It wasn’t just the Scot’s energy though, it was his all-round willingness to take the ball, interchange passing and create space and chances for his team mates, Naismith was back to his best after a quiet couple of weeks. Lukaku got a great hat trick and probably scored double that amount, and his performance and attitude will help get rid of the friction that his recent comments had created. For me though the Man of the Match and person who deserves the main mention from last night’s win was Ross Barkley. After starting a couple of our recent fixtures from the bench the England youngster was in fine form last night, full of confidence, vision and creativity. He played with a high tempo and real offensive attitude from the off and it was great to see him at the thick of things for the Toffees. With him and Lukaku linking up as they did against Young Boys, we can only hope that we see more evidence of this in our domestic League form starting with the game with Leicester on Sunday at Goodison Park.
What impressed me most about our performance last night was the fact we never sat back, we continued to press and implement our plan throughout the game. Our preparation was spot on, and we dealt with the pitch and opposition with a real swagger and assurance. There was no complacency, no real signs of sloppiness or shakiness, no lack of ideas or ambition, we were in control of matters from the first minute and some of the goals we scored were so impressive. Our Europa League campaign has been brilliant but that win last night was massive, we thoroughly deserved the victory and can now go into the home tie with a real belief and confidence, and with a distinct lack of pressure.
It’s been too easy to criticise this Everton side this season, I done it on numerous occasions, and although I know one game doesn’t make a season and our domestic form is still cause for concern, we have to take the positives, the plaudits and take heart from what we saw in Switzerland last night. The Leicester game is massive, but if we can play with even half the spirit we did last night then getting the three points shouldn’t be a problem. For now just enjoy the moment, enjoy the fact that we are on the cusp of further progression in Europe and believe that we can actually go all of the way. Last night was both refreshing and elating, two words you wouldn’t associate with Everton this season, but now with only one defeat in our last eight games, a real defensive improvement of late and a goal fest away from home in Europe fresh in our minds, we have to keep going and kick on. The emergence of Barkley and Lukaku banging in the goals will be vital to this, and last night both of those young lads were superb. Our attitude was first rate, the team as whole looked hungry and played for each other, and the manager got his preparation and tactics spot on. A big well done to all of them. Onwards we go.