Everton 4 - 2 Leicester City
Another home game, another glut of goals and another victory to savour as Leicester’s irresistible force foundered on the immovable object that is Everton at Goodison Park this afternoon who completed the double over the soon-to-be deposed Champions.
The Foxes came to Merseyside on the back of a five-match winning run under their new manager, one which has propelled them away from relegation danger, but in what was a rip-roaring encounter, for the first hour at least, they were eventually undone by an uncompromising and incisive Blues team.
It was the kind of match that simultaneously makes you incredibly optimistic about the future under Ronald Koeman — the Romelu Lukaku caveat notwithstanding — while also rueful over the missed opportunities, particularly away from home where this Everton side has lacked the kind of verve and determination they showed today.
This was a test of character, an illustration of both the resilience and attacking potency of Koeman’s side and another example of how far it has moved on from the fearful and vulnerable outfit it was a year ago under the Dutchman’s predecessor. Not only that, the Blues showed their improvement from just a few months ago when they lost the FA Cup Third Round tie to Leicester by throwing away a lead and succumbing to the Foxes’ own spirit.
There were shades today of that solitary stain on Everton’s home record in 2017 with just 10 minutes gone. Tom Davies had put them ahead with the second goal scored after just 30 seconds that the Grand Old Lady has born witness to this year, an impressively composed finish following Kevin Mirallas’s purposeful run and some commendable refereeing by Robert Madley in allowing play to go on despite Daniel Amartey pulling the Belgian back.
Everton coughed up that precious early advantage just three minutes later when they were caught cold on a counter-attack led by Demarai Gray who accelerated away from Mason Holgate — the young defender electing not to scythe him down from behind — and played Islam Slimani in for a simple finish through Joel Robles’s legs.
And the visitors had turned the game on its head before 10 minutes had elapsed when Marc Albrighton accepted the gift of a clumsy foul by Matthew Pennington on Jamie Vardy just outside the penalty area to sail a free kick over Robles and make it 2-1.
It was not the Spanish ‘keeper’s finest moment — another question mark over his reliability as first-choice between the posts over the long term — and Pennington probably wanted to hide after his costly error but, to the defender’s credit he put the incident behind him and went on to perform solidly for the remainder of the contest.
So, too, did Everton as a collective and it’s the fortitude of will combined with the matching strength of the players who drove the side on to victory that was so pleasing to witness. Inspired by the return of Morgan Schneiderlin, the quietly effective linchpin backed in front of the back four until he made way for Gareth Barry with 20 minutes to go, and supported by the industry of Davies and Idrissa Gueye, the Blues re-established their grip on the match and patiently set about working their way back into the match.
Gueye may have looked in recent weeks as though his month away at the Africa Cup of Nations had served to critically disrupt his domestic season but he was back to his brilliant best today; part disruptor, part forward-moving dynamo, he was involved in the build-up to Everton’s equaliser midway through the first half. He fed the ball wide to Ross Barkley and the young England man whipped in a pin-point early cross evocative of Gerard Deulofeu that had carried all the pace on it that Lukaku needed to steer it past Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal.
The momentum was back with Koeman’s men now who, epitomised by the rejuvenated Mirallas and the inventive Barkley, were combative, determined and pleasing on the eye in equal measure. Barkley may have wanted too long on the ball at times, a nit in his game that continues to rankle, but he deserves credit for shaking off the criticism of his performance in the Anfield derby in particular by getting back to his busy and productive self in this game.
He’s probably still wondering how he didn’t score five minutes before half-time, though. Put through by Davies’s brilliant tackle in midfield, Barkley rounded Schmeichel and just needed to slide the ball home but the Leicester ‘keeper did superbly well to scramble to the side and get a glove on the shot to divert the ball behind.
His satisfaction was short-lived, however. From the resulting corner, Mirallas curled the ball in and Phil Jagielka rose elegantly to guide a header into the corner and make it 3-2 at the break. A player written off by many based on his advancing years and the increasing frequency of his errors earlier in the season, the Captain put in another terrific shift and was, again, a strong candidate alongside Gueye, Barkley, Lukaku and Mirallas for man of the match.
He also played a significant role in the fourth goal in the 58th minute that effectively made the game safe at 4-2. Once more a dangerous Mirallas corner swerved in from the left side was met by Jagielka but while Andy King blocked his header, the ball dropped invitingly for Lukaku to rap back across goal and into far corner.
That goal took the Belgian’s tally to 23 for the season in the League, represented his eight successive home game with a goal, and it was Everton’s invitation to slow proceedings down and control things for the remainder of the half.
Leonardo Ulloa came off the bench for Leicester and threatened to make things uncomfortably interesting with almost identical headers off set-pieces, but the first hit Gueye on its way to goal and Robles made a reflexive one-handed save for the other to ensure that there would be no way back for Craig Shakespeare’s men who lost for the first time under his stewardship.
Leicester go into a Champions League quarter final against Atletico Madrid in midweek and it’s the hope of everyone connected with Everton that such prestigious evenings are in the Toffees’ future under Koeman. Their home form since the turn of the year unquestionably suggests they are definitely moving in that direction; what’s needed now is for the manager to translate this new-found spirit and resilience at home to away matches, Steve Walsh to weave his magic in the transfer market this summer, and for the Board to convince Lukaku that the “Everton Project” could then be close to delivering his Champions League dream.
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