Everton 1-1 Crystal Palace
There was an annoying air of inevitability about this result, not least because we were playing one of our bogey sides at Goodison Park in the form of Crystal Palace, a team we haven't beaten at home since 2005 and who have made a habit of preying on our weaknesses in this fixture over the past couple of seasons.
There was also the as-sure-as-night-follows-day predictability of Everton passing up an opportunity to take advantage of a number of favourable results above them over the course of the weekend by failing to win the kind of match that they just have to if they are to have a realistic shot at Champions League qualification this season. If the wins over Aston Villa and Sunderland pointed towards a team coalescing nicely into the kind of outfit capable of sneaking into the top four while other, better-financed teams struggle for consistency then the last two draws in the Premier League serve as a reminder that until this Blues side finds a way to grind out maximum points from winnable matches, they are destined to fall short yet again.
Sixth place and a berth just two points behind the top five beckoned if the Blues could fashion a win. Instead, they found themselves forced to chase a game again after falling behind; the requisite urgency prompted by Scott Dann's 76th-minute opener leading to a more direct approach that had hitherto been all too erratic in the final third and an equaliser within five minutes through Romelu Lukaku.
And yet, despite their propensity to over-elaborate in the final third, to try and walk the ball through an entrenched defence, and their unwillingness at times to "play the percentages" and shoot when the defence opened up in front of them, with a more favourable look from Lady Luck Everton would have earned the victory that, on balance, they deserved. Wayne Hennessey pulled off a quite brilliant save to tip Tom Cleverley's blistering volley over midway through the second half and even when their 'keeper was beaten, Palace were saved by favourable bounces off the frame of the goal. Twice Lukaku rattled the woodwork with well-struck efforts while Conor Wickham almost did the Blues' job for them when he back-headed Ross Barkley's free kick onto his own bar.
Some of the football from Everton was sublime – a delicious backheel here, a deft flick-on or one-two interchange there – and it felt for long periods that all they (in essence, "they" meant Deulofeu, such was the faith in and reliance on the Spaniard's trickery and delivery) had to do was get the final ball right and they would grind out the win.
They had started well, with the kind of energy and purpose that buoyed the 35,000+ crowd into thinking that a home Premier League win was on the cards after the disappointment at Bournemouth last weekend, and it took just seven minutes for Ross Barkley and Lukaku to exchange passes on the edge of the Palace box and the former to curl an audacious shot just wide of the far post.
Their initial fire was quelled, though, as the visitors looked to get forward down the flanks and test their hosts' notorious susceptibility to crosses and when Yannick Bolasie neatly side-stepped Ramiro Funes Mori on the touchline and whipped a cross to the near post, Tim Howard had to make a point-blank block with his chest to deny Wickham with a quarter of an hour gone.
Everton coped well enough with the aerial threat, though, and, after resuming their control of the contest, they came within an inch or two of taking the lead. Lukaku spun smartly on a loose ball just outside the Palace penalty area and unleashed a low drive that cannoned off the inside of the post and flew agonisingly across the face of Hennessey's goal and out towards the corner flag.
The Belgian then put his foil and strike partner Arouna Kone in with a neat flick but the Ivorian blazed wide with his weaker foot, Barkley almost got in on the end of a Deulofeu cross to the near post, and Galloway almost teed Lukaku up in front of goal from John Stones's cross after the centre half had taken Pape SouarÃ© out of the picture completely with a superb cut-back bear the byline.
Then, as half-time approached, Seamus Coleman, having one of his best games all season, unloaded with an accurate left-foot shot that would likely have tested the goalkeeper sternly had not deflected off a defender's head and behind for a corner.
Though they had been held goalless in the first 45 minutes for the first time since mid-October, there was plenty about which Martinez could be encouraged from his side's display in the first period. Cleverley was banishing impressively concerns that the loss of James McCarthy would leave Everton vulnerable in their own half with a robust and enterprising display and though Deulofeu was clearly still finding his range, the law of averages suggested that sooner or later one of his deliveries would open up the opposition back line.
Funes Mori was looking uncharacteristically shaky at centre back – he would deteriorate as the evening went on and he was fortunate that eagle-eyed referee Craig Pawson saw no contact on an ill-advised slide tackle late in the second half that could have ended with a penalty and red card with a less observant official – but Palace were not showing much desire to mount sustained attacks so they were mostly restricted to balls in from wide areas.
That left the Blues to continue with the pattern established in the first half after the restart but they found Palace's defence difficult to break down, with shots and crosses ending with a succession of corners – 13 in all over the course of the match – that, despite three different set-piece takers, failed to make a dent. Still, Kone side-footed over when he might have done better with Lukaku's layoff and Barkley ended another quick counter-attack following the Ivorian's interception inside his own half by heading narrowly wide of the near post.
The Londoners, now exploiting the space behind Leighton Baines as the second-half substitute tried to open up attacking avenues down the much-ignored left flank, almost profited with a break-away of their own but although Bolasie accelerated away from Stones, Howard anticipated the danger well and saved the Congolese winger's shot with an out-stretched foot. After Cleverley's lovely strike had been turned over by Hennessey at one end, the Everton keeper would be called upon again at the other when Yohan Cabaye's run into the box was ended by Stones' last-ditch challenge and the ball broke to Jason Puncheon but Howard parried his shot away for a corner.
That proved to be one set-piece too many and it was all so "Everton, that" when, after 76 minutes of patient probing by the Blues in one direction, they should concede another soft goal from a corner and find themselves chasing the game in the final quarter of an hour. Neither Kone nor Gareth Barry tracked Dann as the ball was floated in from the Palace right and the defender powered an easy header down the centre of the goal with Howard distracted by the obstruction by Wickham in front of him.
The response from Everton – and Lukaku in particular – was almost immediate and spectacular. The striker knocked Barry's forward pass to the side, rolled off his marker and despatched a ripping left-footed half-volley that had Hennessey beaten all ends up but the ball ricocheted defiantly off the underside of the crossbar and back into play.
Lukaku would not be denied a few minutes later, though, when Deulofeu picked by Barkley's slide-rule pass, danced his way along the byline and when one of his low centres finally made its way across goal, albeit via a nick off Barry's leg, it fell invitingly for the Belgian who couldn't miss in front of goal to notch his 50th goal for Everton in his 100th appearance for the club.
Having wrested the initiative back with 10 minutes to go, the stage appeared set perhaps for some fresh legs and ideas off the bench – Kone, for example, had been an excellent foil for Lukaku for much of the game but he again looked like he was running in treacle by the closing stages – in an effort to win it but, mystifyingly, Martinez elected to leave the likes of Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon on the sidelines. Unfortunately, those he left on the field couldn't fashion the clear-cut opening that would have delivered all three points, although a couple of inviations to shoot to Deulofeu and Lukaku in the final minutes were spurned and promising openings went begging as the game fizzled out.
There is much buzz about Martinez's excting young side and there is still a feeling that they are still learning and improving, but there is an inescapable sense that Everton are in a race against time when it comes to keeping the group wholly intact. Lukaku, in particular, is in the kind of irresistible form that will make it impossible to keep him from the covetous attentions of clubs that are able to offer him a seat at European football's top table or to persuade him that he should spend another year at Goodison if we're not playing in Europe.
Stones, meanwhile, demonstrated precisely why he is being talked about as a potential long-term replacement for Gerard Pique at Barcelona with some wonderful moments in both halves of the field. And if Barkley and Deulofeu weren't quite at the top of their game, they are no longer strangers to observers of the English game.
Everton are teetering on the cusp of something here thanks to the mix of youthful talent and more tried experience that Martinez has assembled but it remains tantalisingly out of reach at the moment. Few would have thought that we would see such opportunity in a wide open race for the top four so soon after Manchester United's quick reovery from their post-Sir Alex decline of two seasons ago but the Toffees' mere five wins and their failure to beat any of the top 10 so far this season are illustrative of a continuing lack of ruthlessness, single-mindedness and defensive solidity that are hallmarks of successful, winning teams.
The nature of the top half of the league is such that it's not too late if Martinez can find the answers – not only in terms of his team's collective menatality but also his own game management – over what is a vital period over the next month then the potential to "achieve", in the manager's words, is still there.
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