That Roberto Martinez has put his neck on the block to such an extent with regard to Tim Howard has, depending on your point of view, either been the epitome of faith or extreme managerial folly but the American vindicated his manager's decision to reinstate him to the team in the face of mounting crticism with a stellar display at the Etihad Stadium.
In concert with a captain's performance by the returning Phil Jagielka, indefatigable work by Ramiro Funes Mori and Leighton Baines and tireless patrolling by the likes of Gareth Barry and Muhamed Besic in front of them, Howard kept the Premier League's most prolific attack at bay as Everton earned a hugely creditable 0-0 draw.
It's a result that will probably prove more useful in terms of psychology for the second leg of the Capital One Cup than Everton's derailed charge for the top four – a single point does us little good at this stage. Results on the League front may yet prove that the eight-point gap to the Champions League qualifying places is surmountable by a side that has won as many cup ties as Premier League fixtures but tonight's was a performance and a score that the Blues would grab with both hands in a fortnight's time.
It was a close-run thing, though, and the extent to which Martinez's men had to rely on the resilience of their defence, the reactions of their goalkeeper and the lenience of referee Roger East at the death made for an uncomfortable ride in the second period for those supporters who actually made it into the ground despite horrendous conditions on the M62. John Stones's rash slide on Raheem Sterling as he made for the byline in stoppage time was almost a very costly one but the match official waved away pleas from the City players that the Everton man had taken the winger's legs.
Television replays would show that he clearly had but when weighed against the decision by Mark Clattenburg to penalise Stones for a similar challenge at the same point of the match against Stoke City at the end of December it was a quick evening out of such matters. Moreover, it went a small way to making up for the fact that City have beaten Everton at their place with the help of ridiculously soft penalties – not to mention those not given in Everton's favour – in each of the last three seasons. Let's just say it was a pleasant change in circumstances...
The second half may have been more or less one-way traffic until the home side seemed to run out of steam a bit in the last 10 minutes – in truth, both sets of players were looking pretty leggy by that stage – but the first had been hugely promising for Everton, not least during a 10-minute purple patch around the half-hour mark when Leon Osman came within inches of scoring a quite spectacular opener.
The midfielder, playing in the left-sided role in place of the injured Tom Cleverley, displayed wonderful technique by latching onto Romelu Lukaku's excellent clipped cross with a crisply-hit volley that flew inches wide of the far post. It would have been a stunning goal and a reward for the controlled way in which Martinez's side had gone about their business in the first 45 minutes.
Earlier, the teams had traded blows when Kevin de Bruyne stole in behind the Blues' defence but shot wide and Howard did brilliantly to push Yaya Toure's close-range, downward header away, while Gerard Deulofeu made two trademark bursts along the byline but was foiled by on both occasions by Joe Hart's out-stretched leg.
And though City stepped up their efforts as half-time approached, there was little to choose between the sides in terms of goal threat. De Bruyne easily ghosted around Stones, who had mixed evening as an emergency right back in Seamus Coleman's absence, but couldn't pick out a teammate in the middle and at the other end Lukaku accelerated away from Martin Demichelis but fired his right-footed shot from the angle narrowly over the crossbar.
Though Everton's early forays forward early in the second period suggested that the pattern established in the first might continue, Pellegrini's men soon established control of the contest. Lukaku had a shot blocked shortly after the restart while Stones was down at the other end of the pitch with a knock that looked certain to require his withdrawal from the game – he was able to continue following treatment – but it rapidly became one-way traffic towards Howard's goal.
Jesus Navas dragged a shot well wide in the 52nd minute, Stones let Sterling in when he allowed himself to be dispossessed near the touchline but wasn't punished and the centre-half then atoned a few minutes later by getting enough on a goalbound shot by the same player to allow Howard to safely gather. And when Sergio Aguero connected with one of City's 12 corners on the night in the 69th minute, the Everton 'keeper had to be alert again with a reflex save to bat the ball away off his goal line.
Indeed, that spell midway through the second half would be a busy one for the US international. Twice he intervened with crucial saves with his foot and then he came off his line quickly to save smartly from Aguero again as the Argentine bore down on his goal.
What few chances the Blues had going forward themselves to relieve some of the pressure were largely squandered by poor distributon or a wayward final ball and when Martinez moved to freshen things up a little by withdrawing the veteran Osman and the now ineffectual Deulofeu, his replacements appeared to be a nod towards ball-retention rather than pace or counter-attacking ability that could pick the hosts off on the break.
The introduction of Steven Pienaar to bolster the left alongside Baines and Arouna Kone up front did help the ball stick a little better and it meant that Everton now looked more productive down their left but when Lukaku was played in one last time on his favoured left foot, his shot was deflected behind by Demichelis for a corner. City, meanwhile still threatened, with Navas heading over from near the penalty spot and Aguero battling his through before being forced wide by Jagielka and clipping his shot over from an almost impossible angle but it was Stones's error with time ticking down that almost broke the Blues' stubborn resistance. Thankfully, he was not punished.
Having shipped a glut of goals at home either side of Christmas, Everton's greater emphasis on defensive solidity means they have now conceded just two since the turn of the year in four matches in all competitions. It has come at the expense somewhat of some of their attacking freedom (even if this wasn't a typical park-the-bus scenario) and, as a result, they've also only scored five (with two those coming against League Two Dagenham & Redbridge in the FA Cup).
The return to an almost Moyesian posture to stop the rot at the back as badly needed; the challenge now, of course, is to find the delicate balance between defence and attack so that the side can push on and get the victories they need on all fronts between now and May. As teams with genuine top-four aspirations continue to drop points or trade them amongst each other, the door still remains ajar for the Blues if they can get their act together.
It remains a big "if", though, particularly if injuries continue to disrupt a squad that is, in the eyes of the manager, in need of pruning but which is also still vulnerable in key areas, most glaringly at fullback, left midfield and up front. Martinez has hinted at a possible signing or two before the transfer deadline and Evertonians will retain their hopes that a real difference-maker can be acquired but past experience suggests they're desires that are likely to go unsated.
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