Last night didn’t get off to the best of starts for Evertonians and the Everton Squad as traffic chaos on the M62 led to the First Team arriving at the Eithad Stadium much later than planned, and this also resulted in numerous travelling Blues arriving after kick-off – some even missing up to 30 minutes of the first half. Not ideal, and many fingers have been pointed at Manchester City as to why the game was not delayed so as all fans could see all of the action that they had paid a lot of money to see – a matter which I’m sure the Everton Supporters Trust will now take further and demand answers.
The game went ahead at 7:45pm as scheduled and those Evertonians inside the ground would have been pleased with what they saw from Roberto Martinez’ side during the opening 45 minutes. John Stones lined up at right back, with Jagielka continuing his recovery at central defence alongside the bandaged Funes-Mori, and Leighton Baines made up the fourth defensive position at left-back. Ahead of them Mo Besic started his third game on the bounce, Gareth Barry came back in after his weekend rest whilst 34-year-old Leon Osman and Gerard Deulofeu made up the wide positions, with Ross Barkley sitting in behind Romelu Lukaku.
From the off there was an open feel to the game with both sides seeing plenty of possession but it was the home side who created the first opportunity. It turned out to be the first of a number of saves the much-maligned Tim Howard would have to make on the night, as Yaya Toure latched on to a Bacary Sanga cross to power a header downwards at goal but the American stopper was equal to it, parrying the ball to safety before scrambling to collect the rebound . An early scare but Everton soon pressed themselves down the right and looked to create chances. Lukaku’s inviting ball across the box put in Deulofeu but the Spaniard’s effort was snuffed out by Joe Hart who saved at his near post. Deulofeu was at it again shortly after, latching on to a ball over the top from Stones, before skinning Demechelis down the right flank, but again the chance was dealt with by Man City who blocked Deulofeu’s attempted cross out for a corner. Encouraging signs from us and proof that we wouldn’t just sit back and soak up the pressure from City – well not in the first half anyway.
Around the 20 minute mark Sergio Aguero broke away down the right hand side and looked to put Everton under pressure, however before he managed to get himself a yard of space, the impressive Mo Besic snuffed out the threat and made a brilliantly timed tackle to deny the Argentinian. It was a risky challenge because Aguero would have been through on the angle, but thankfully the Bosnian took the ball and stopped any chance of a City threat. Raheem Sterling then threatened Everton down the left hand side and forced Tim Howard to come off his line and punch away the danger, and thankfully for the visitors David Silva could only fire the follow-up high and harmlessly over the bar.
At the other end, Everton had two more chances before the half time break. Firstly, Lukaku broke down the right and waited for royal blue shirts to support him – the Belgian held the ball up before brilliantly setting up the advancing Leon Osman on the volley – but Osman’s excellently struck effort flew just inches past Joe Hart’s post and out to safety. It was almost Van-Basten-esque it was that good. The approach play from Rom was superb, as was Osman’s technique, but unfortunately for the Blues his effort was the wrong side of the post. It would have been one of the goals of the season but it wasn’t to be. Lukaku was again involved when he fed off a brilliant Deulofeu through ball, before powering his way towards goal. Otamendi managed to get back and put the striker off and his effort flew over the bar, but again it was a sign of how we can create a promising opportunity within the space of a few seconds and a couple of passes. We all know that fluidity and creativity is there, but often we lack that killer instinct, that cutting edge that could turn many of these draws into wins.
However, I have to say that at half time I was pleased with Everton’s overall performance. We had made our own chances and dealt with what City had to offer, Tim Howard had already made a couple of smart saves and with Jagielka back in the side and looking solid, Mo Besic outstanding again in midfield and Deulofeu and Lukaku looking to get at City, I felt that we could get something out of the game. Would we go for it in the second half or keep it tight and settle for a draw? Unfortunately it was more a case of the latter but there was to be positives from our display in both halves.
After the restart the home side looked hungrier and looked to increase the pressure on Everton. Our forward players began to tire – most notably Deulofeu, Lukaku and Osman who all seemed shattered, so the ball would not stick and at times we couldn’t get it out of our half. Even when we did win a corner shortly after the break, we found ourselves defending a City counter attack and Mo Besic got himself booked in the process for a challenge on Aguero. City upped their tempo, but our defence continued to stand firm.
It was Jesus Navas who fired the first shot of the second period, dragging an effort wide of the mark. City began to win corner after corner, but still Jagielka and his colleagues rallied and showed resilience. Unfortunately there wasn’t much respite for our defenders as our offensive glimpses of positivity from the first 45 soon evaporated as we found ourselves on the back foot. Tim Howard was called into action once again when Sergio Aguero neatly turned his countryman Funes-Mori and found himself in on goal – however he fired his effort straight at Howard – it was becoming a personal dual between those two.
Another notable chance for City came when Raheem Sterling looked set to score on the hour mark only for John Stones to block his effort then advance up the pitch to start an Everton attack but the ball was soon back up at the other end. Yaya Toure was put in by De Bruyne but Funes Mori blocked the Ivorian’s effort to give City what felt like their 20th corner of the second period. From the resulting cross Sergio Aguero struck a volley goal-bound but Howard again saved his effort and the ball bounced away to safety. If Aguero had hit his shot anywhere else but the middle of the goal then City would have taken the lead. Howard made several saves in quick succession and you could hear the frustrations from the home crowd. Could Everton hold out?
City again pressed – this time through De Bruyne down the right – and this time his effort was saved away by Howard – albeit with his feet, and the American then gathered the rebound from Sterling as the US stopper and his defence continued to stand firm in the way of waves of City pressure. We needed fresh legs and needed them probably sooner than on 70 minutes when Martinez decided to make changes. I thought we needed an outlet – someone who could put City on the back foot and give our defence a breather, so bringing Mirallas or Lennon on would have made more sense to me. However the Blues boss brought on Kone and Pienaar for Osman and Deulofeu – who both had been anonymous in the second half.
Even after the substitutions the City pressing didn’t let up, with Silva looking to pick holes in the Toffees’ back line, but after Aguero fired another effort over Everton sensed they could get forward and his City on the counter. Baines, who found himself in an advanced position, was tripped on the edge of the box but the referee played an advantage as the ball fell to Lukaku – unfortunately Rom’s shot was blocked away by Demechelis and the referee decided not to bring play back and award us a free kick, much to the annoyance of the Evertonians behind the goal. Lukaku had another half chance before the final whistle, heading wide from a Besic cross, but overall our offensive play was very much lacking in the second half. Our defence had dealt with everything City had thrown at them, with Howard making a string of saves, but it all could have counted for nothing when City appealed for two late penalties. Firstly Aguero felt Stones had brought him down inside the area but the referee rightly waved away those appeals, before Sterling felt he should (and could easily have been given) have had a penalty when Stones slid in on him. The only thing that made Everton survive the appeals was the fact that Stones appeared to pull out of the challenge – but still there was contact, and as the saying goes ‘you’ve seen them given’. But on this occasion luck was on our side and a goal kick was awarded. Things could have easily been so different and all of our defensive work could have been undone but for a moment of madness by Stones – something which he needs to learn from. The lad is young, very gifted and obviously growing with every game, but he can be rash in his decision-making and sometimes caught out. He can almost be too casual for his own good too – and without being overly critical he doesn’t do much for Evertonians’ blood pressure – however, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s great that he’s an Everton player, such a talent in the making, I just hope we see him in royal blue for many years to come.
A draw and a clean sheet is not a bad result at the Etihad, and we have to take heart from how we kept it together in the second half, but for me there’s some slight disappointment that we didn’t express ourselves in the second half as we did in the first. Tiredness was a factor, with Deulofeu running on empty and Lukaku not having his most energetic night, and the positives from the first period didn’t continue in the second, but overall a win (League Cup 2-1) and a draw (League 0-0) within a week against Man City isn’t bad at all. Obviously a draw doesn’t do a lot for our League positioning but I’m trying to take the positives here.
We are unbeaten in four – a good draw with Spurs has been followed by a big boost in the Cup versus City, which was then followed by a ‘job done’ performance against Dagenham in the FA Cup, and now we’ve gone to City and kept a clean sheet. We have to be positive going into the Chelsea game – West Brom have gone there last night and shown that anyone can get a result – and following on from that we face Swansea and then City again in the Cup before an FA Cup clash with Yeovil or Carlisle at the end of the month. We have an opportunity to keep this run going but obviously we need to be winning more League games. Six wins this season is simply not good enough but we can get ourselves up that table if we put a couple of victories together, here’s hoping anyway.
On last night’s game I firmly believe Tim Howard was Man of the Match, yes people will say ‘he’s expected to make those saves’ but at the end of the day he did make those saves, they were not all routine, and he kept the scores level. He played his part just as the Everton defence did. It was tough – and always will be against the likes of Aguero, Silva and co. and even though our criticism of Howard has been more than justified, we have to give credit where it is due. I’m not fickle, and I stick by my word that Howard is not good enough for Everton FC, but that does not mean I can’t praise him for his performance last night. I thought Jagielka and Funes Mori were great – it makes a difference having Jags back in the team – and Stones and Baines also played their respective parts in keeping the home side at bay. It also makes a difference having Besic in the midfield too, our spine and shape seems a lot better. The Bosnian has such a confident knack of going about his business, keeping things tidy but also possesses the ability to do something special, his tackling makes the difference, as does his attitude, and you can see a midfield combination of him and Barry blossoming already. A joy to watch that lad, and to think he’s only just getting off the ground in terms of his Everton career, exciting times.
I thought Deulofeu had one of his quietest games for the Blues, he did create a couple of opportunities in the first half but he tends to grow tired after an hour and similarly to most games he’s started this season, he ends up being replaced. Barkley, Osman and Lukaku didn’t perform to the levels we would have liked and Kone/Pienaar didn’t really shine in their 20 minutes on the pitch. I believe the introduction of Mirallas or Lennon would have been more ideal, but we all know Martinez loves a questionable substitution or two.
An interesting statistic I read last night is that only Crystal Palace have conceded fewer goals than us on the road – nine in ten games – which makes it all the more frustrating that we haven’t more games than we have. If only we could stop conceding too many at Goodison and putting our chances away, we’d be a lot higher up than we are now. For me the jury is still out on Martinez, I have lost a lot of faith in him and hope that he can prove me wrong this season, but at the moment it seems to be the constant themes of ifs, buts and maybes when it comes to Everton FC. There is still an awful lot to play for this season and us Evertonians can only hope that Martinez has it in his locker to make this side begin to fulfil their potential. We’ve got the players to do it, but the longer we go on being inconsistent and being amongst the ‘best of the rest’ in the table, the more likely it is that those players won’t stick around, and that’s my biggest worry.
Onwards we go to Chelsea now and we must take each game as it comes and believe we can go there and win. That word belief is what is lacking at Everton, 18 wins from 59 and only 6 this season speaks volumes about Everton’s results over the past 18 months, but going into the New Year in a League Cup semi-final, with two wins and two draws from our opening four fixtures in 2016, I’m trying to remain upbeat and believe that this crop of players can drag themselves up the table and who knows, do something memorable in the Cup. It’s a real chance for Everton to write off the first half of this season and treat the next five months as the crucial time – a crucial time to shine, put a run together and show people what we are really capable of, because it is about time we did just that.