After two successive three-nil victories in Cup and League within four days earlier this week, Everton were looking to make it three wins on the spin and continue their recent run of good form when they travelled to take on Stoke City this afternoon.
It only feels like yesterday that today’s opponents turned us over 4-3 on a frustrating night at Goodison Park, but since the Potters beat us over the Christmas period they have suffered somewhat of a slump. Their most recent outing was a 3-0 reverse at Manchester United and with Mark Hughes’ side dropping points in recent weeks, and Everton’s form picking up since their League Cup exit at the hands of Manchester City, the Toffees would have been confident going into the game at the Britannia, and it soon showed.
Martinez named the same team that dispatched Newcastle in midweek; Oviedo kept his place at left back, Funes Mori partnered Jagielka with Stones missing out again and Lennon kept his place after his recent run of good form. The major news for the Blues was that Lukaku had recovered from that knee in the back from Coloccini and the Belgian was fit enough to lead the line and attempt to end his mini goal drought. New signing Oumar Niasse missed out because his VISA has not yet been resolved – so will likely make his debut against West Brom next week.
Everton were lively from the off and within five minutes we could have had the lead. Bryan Oviedo won a corner on the left-hand side and Barkley took an inviting set piece which Funes Mori latched on to. The Argentine’s effort looked goal-bound, only for his header to deflect wide of Seamus Coleman. An early scare for the home side and a sign of things to come.
Lukaku showed no signs of the injury that forced him off at half time against Newcastle and he, along with the likes of Lennon, Barkley and Oviedo looked to get at Stoke with some neat interchange during the opening stages. On ten minutes, our quick tempo in attack brought about the first real chance of the game. Barkley, who has been in scintillating form of late, back-heeled a sublime pass into Oviedo’s path in the Stoke City half – the Costa Rican then advanced with the ball and laid in Cleverley on the angle inside the box – before Jack Butland came out and took Cleverley’s legs – penalty. With Lukaku off the pitch in midweek it was left to Ross Barkley to step up and take the two spot kicks we were awarded against Newcastle, however Rom was back on duty and stepped up to coolly stroke the ball past Butland and give us the lead on 11 minutes.
The goal was Lukaku’s 20th of the season, and Rom becomes the first player since 1985 to score 20 goals in two successive seasons for Everton FC. Goal Machine. Lukaku also matched Andrei Kanchelskis and Tony Cottee with 16 goals in a Premier League season with that first half penalty. The statistics just get better and better for Rom.
Similarly to the Newcastle game we had started well and taken an early lead, and it gave the thousands of travelling Evertonians something to cheer in the soaking wet conditions.
For the next ten-fifteen minutes the game opened up more. Stoke began to see more of the ball but they never looked too sharp going forward. Robles gathered a couple of attempted crosses but there was nothing to worry about in terms of early chances for the home side. Everton still looked energetic going forward and dangerous on the ball, and I felt we carried that threat throughout. Our passing was slick, our work rate was great and our attitude was that of a side on the back of two morale-boosting victories.
Just before the half hour mark Everton won another corner down the left hand side. Cleverley – whose set pieces and distribution are often impeccable – supplied an inviting ball into the box for no other than Seamus Coleman to brilliantly stoop and head into the net. 2-0 on 28 minutes. Coleman ran away with his thumb in his mouth and did the famous baby rocking celebration – congratulations to him and his family on the birth of their baby girl over the weekend.
To be fair Seamus has come in for criticism in recent weeks and he has been below-par by his own standards, however today he was back to his old self, he played well and got himself on the score sheet – something which he used to do regularly.
Tom Cleverley also deserves a mention here because he set up our first and our second goals today – taking his tally of assists to three in two games.
We were now two-nil up and too hot to handle for Stoke. At the back we stood strong but going forward we looked clinical, it was good to see a continuation of our football over the course of the past seven days. Stoke had more of the ball but we had taken our chances and sucker-punched the Potters.
Following on from our second the game become a lot more stop-start due to a couple of injuries. Firstly James McCarthy worryingly went down in a heap after a challenge but thankfully after treatment he was OK to continue. Moments later, his central midfield partner Gareth Barry was forced off for treatment too on an arm injury. It was a strange one because the challenge was innocuous and contact was minimal, but he too managed to eventually continue. It would have been a blow to lose either of those two as we can’t afford anymore injuries in the middle of the park with Besic already out nursing a knock.
Stoke just couldn’t get going and Everton were set up perfectly – I believe Martinez got it spot on today. Lennon and Barkley retained the ball well and worked hard, meanwhile the industrious McCarthy and Cleverley were all over the pitch. Oviedo was performing admirably as was the increasingly popular Funes Mori and Jagielka – things were looking good for the visitors and they were about to look even better just minutes before half time.
This time a mistake by Stoke defender Wollscheid saw Aaron Lennon intercept the ball in the middle of the Stoke half, before advancing at pace with the chasing defenders nowhere near. Lennon then kept his composure and confidently stroked home past the stranded Butland to give us our third on 41 minutes. Dream land for Evertonians.
We were good value for the 3-0 too, and in reality it could have been more.
Lennon was in blistering form again, he always looks to intercept the ball and utilises his pace, and this was something he did brilliantly today. He made it four goals in six games against Stoke and scored in three successive fixtures for the first time in his career.
Before the half time whistle Stoke managed their first shot on target when Diouf poked through to Arnautovic, but the attacker, who tore Everton apart at Goodison Park, saw his weak effort saved by Robles who again – went about his business with no fuss and eventually went on to keep another clean sheet.
There was five minutes added time at the end of the first half because of the injuries to Everton players – Ross Barkley was also forced off for treatment with blood streaming from his nose – but the only talking point during the closing stages of the opening half was how bad the weather was getting. The pitch was drenched and the ball began to hold up, but if anything this worked in Everton’s favour because of our neat passing and movement.
Into the second half and Everton never once looked to settle for three goals, they just kept going. Ross Barkley went close moments into the second period, firing a shot into the side netting when he could easily have gone down to win a penalty following a challenge on him. Moments later Funes Mori had a penalty shout waved away when he attempted to latch on to a Jagielka cross, only to be hauled away from the ball by his marker.
Stoke were well and truly frustrated and even though they had the likes of Arnautovic and Shaqiri on the pitch they looked all out of ideas – resorting to throwing hopeful balls into the box that Everton were equal to every time.
On 57 minutes Everton came mightily close to a fourth when Barkley whipped a superb ball over to Lukaku, only for the Belgian to head onto the bar via a Jack Butland fingertip. So frustrating but proof that we were still willing to create and get at the home side.
Shaqiri and Afellay were hauled off by Mark Hughes as the home side attempted to salvage some pride – not much chance of that when you replace them two with Stephen Ireland and Peter Odimwingie. But instead of any sort of fight back from Stoke, it was Everton who continued to carve out the major openings.
Our next opportunity came following a brilliant piece of trickery down the left from Lennon, who the ball past two Stoke defenders and leaving them red-faced in the process, before slotting the ball across to Lukaku, but his effort was blocked by Muniesa. It should have been about 6-0 by now so it was frustrating, but because we were already 3-0 up, Stoke were woeful and time was beginning to run out, Evertonians wouldn’t have been too concerned by a few missed opportunities.
On the hour mark Lukaku showed some real quality hold up play, before providing on the on-rushing Barkley who shaped to shoot about four times, before eventually seeing his effort blocked. McCarthy ended up latching on the rebound and fired a great effort just inches wide of Butland’s goal. Yet another chance missed!
Five minutes later Glen Johnson cut in from the right for Stoke and fired a left-footed shot but again Robles was equal to it. It was probably Stoke’s second real effort of the game and it had taken them an hour to muster it.
The home side did press again shortly after but once again Everton resisted their advances. Stoke new-boy Imbula looked set to score after latching on to a through ball, but his attempt at a shot was brilliantly blocked by Funes Mori who is growing in stature with every game he plays for Everton.
On 74 minutes Lukaku was taken off and replaced by Kone, who had failed to inspire in the 45 minutes he played against Newcastle in midweek. Kone had a chance just two minutes after coming on after an Oviedo punt forward found the Ivorian through on goal on the left hand side. Kone’s touch was good, and he teed himself up to shoot, but when he did Butland made himself big and saved his effort. Probably our 5th glorious chance of the second half and it would have been good to see Kone grab a goal just to boost his confidence.
From the resulting corner following the Kone chance – Funes Mori missed an absolute sitter, heading wide unmarked at the back post. That lad doesn’t half win some headers from our corners or free kicks, he is useful in attack as well as defence!
Late on Martinez gave the returning Mirallas a few minutes in place of Barkley and he too could have scored immediately after coming on. This time Kone did well down the left and created a real chance for Mirallas, but the forward fluffed his lines and couldn’t adjust his feet to make the right contact, if he had done it would have been 4-0.
In the closing stages Leon Osman replaced James McCarthy and apart from a Diouf header from a Joselu cross, and a wild effort from Stephen Ireland, there was no concern for Martinez men and the referee put Stoke out of their misery and confirmed the Toffees’ third 3-0 victory within a week.
After two wins against Carlisle and Newcastle it was important to build on our recent momentum and I felt a win was in no doubt from the moment we took the lead today. Although we only had 33% possession (surely has to be one of the lowest since Martinez took over?) we made more use of the ball when we had it than Stoke did. Although we were wasteful in the second half our first half display had already won the game and knocked the life out of Mark Hughes’ side. We had 14 attempts on goal – 6 of which were on target – and the only criticism will be our wasted chances, but going 3 goals up inside 41 minutes away at any Premier League side is impressive, and I feel the manner in which we performed today fully deserved the victory.
Martinez deserves credit for how he set the side up today – even if he does listen to Jason Derulo – and I liked the way he kept the same team as the one that started against Newcastle. Others will no doubt play their parts from now until the end of the season but we won well in midweek with that starting XI and have done again today. A break for John Stones will do him the world of good but with Funes Mori playing so well he will find it hard to work his way back in for the West Brom game. At left-back Oviedo has been first class in his last two outings and today I couldn’t fault him, even though I’ll openly say I’m not his biggest fan. Ahead of the defence the inclusion of Gareth Barry, Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku need no explanation, however the influence of McCarthy, Cleverley and Lennon have been key this week. Do not underestimate their importance to this side with their industry, their energy and their attitude. All three of them worked tirelessly again this afternoon and deserve the plaudits, especially Lennon who has been top drawer in recent weeks.
Lastly I’d just like to mention the Robles/Howard situation. I’ve said it before about Howard, in fact for the past two years, that I believed it was time for him to move on and with him now out of the team this has to be where we plan for life without him. If Robles is dropped against West Brom then expect an angry response at Goodison Park – it will be a crime if this happens, the Spaniard has to now keep his place in the team. Robles is keeping clean sheets and it’s no coincidence that our defence look a lot more assured, whereas Howard’s inclusion in our team was having too much of a negative effect on our performances. It is time to put egos aside, forget about experience and professionalism, we want what is best for Everton FC and I think that Joel Robles has more than warranted a place in that starting XI from now until the end of the season. You need to do what is right Roberto, or run the risk of a further backlash from the Goodison faithful.
I don’t want to finish on a negative so just to summarise the past week I am sure you’ll join me in saying it has been a relief to see us react positively to our League Cup disappointment against City. Didn’t we go on to win six on the spin following our Europa exit in Kyiv last season? With West Brom up next at Goodison before an FA Cup trip to Bournemouth and League clash away at Villa, there is every chance we can make it six wins on the bounce this time around too. But without getting ahead of myself we have to take one game at a time and the focus now has to be another three points against West Brom next Saturday – a game I am actually looking forward to. There’s a sentence I wouldn’t have thought I’d said if you’d asked me a fortnight ago!
Up the Toffees.