Everton 0 - 1 Sunderland
While his record over the first 17 games of the season has been very similar to that of his predecessor, there has unquestionably been a feeling that things are different so far under Roberto Martinez; that there is a "new Everton" emerging under the Spaniard, and not just because of the way he has the team playing.
Unfortunately, with his team in full flow, positioned nicely just two points off the top of table, and two games away from going a full calendar year without a home defeat for the first time since the Championship-winning season of 1962-63, Martinez was visited by the ghost of Everton past this Boxing Day. The one that writes a script where an opposition team sitting on the bottom of the Premier League table, without an away win all season, and which hasn't won at Goodison Park for 17 years comes and grabs all three points, albeit thanks to Everton horrendously shooting themselves in the foot.
For any Blue who has followed this team through the Premier League era where the Blues have so often scuppered themselves when things appeared to be going well, this was all just "so Everton". A routine goal kick from Tim Howard was mis-controlled by Leon Osman in front of his own penalty area, the ball was seized upon by Ki Sung-Yeung who was tripped as he tried to round the goalkeeper. Howard was sent off, Ki just beat substitute Joel Robles with the resulting penalty and Martinez's men were left with a mountain to climb.
It's no secret that Martinez's mandate to play the ball out from the back has seen Everton's rearguard playing with fire so far this season and they have ridden their luck on occasion without being punished. This time, their luck ran out. In hindsight, Howard's decision to make a short pass to Osman with his back to goal was ill-advised, the midfielder's control, while awful, was just an unfortunate slip, and the American would have been better off not challenging Ki so he could remain on the field while retaining the Blues' full complement of players. Easy to argue after the fact, but Howard has saved his defence with a last-ditch challenge before this season and it's senseless to over-analyse his split-second decision here.
That Everton almost salvaged a point from disaster is testament to their spirit and determination under the new boss; that they didn't owed much to their numerical disadvantage, gritty defending by Sunderland and a man-of-the-match display by Tito Mannone in the Black Cats' goal.
Gus Poyet's side had already set their stall out to defend doggedly and had resisted Everton's dominance in possession before the Blues' 25th-minute calamity but, as has been the case on many occasions at Goodison already this season, it was surely just a matter of time before the home team found the combination to break them down. Bryan Oviedo, starting again in the absence of Leighton Baines who wasn't quite ready to make his return from a broken toe, had had an early long-range effort saved by Mannone and Barry had headed over the bar at the back post from a deep corner, while Sunderland had only tested Howard with a low Jack Colback shot that Howard comfortably dealt with.
After the goal, the advantage to the visitors was abundantly clear – the extra man was one more body that could chase, harry and close Everton down and the Blues weren't really able to reassert themselves until the second half, when the desperation of the situation, in combination with raucous backing from the Goodison crowd, spurred them on.
Their efforts before the half-time break were hampered by illness to Kevin Mirallas, the Belgian having to leave the field – leaving the team two men short in the process – for a few minutes and Seb Larsson had the chance to capitalise on a foul by Gareth Barry but fired his free kick over the bar. Earlier, Robles had almost lost the game completely when he spilled Ondrej Celustka's shot in front of Larsson but made amends with a terrific one-handed, point-blank save.
Mirallas did not appear for the second half and was replaced by Ross Barkley who had been omitted from the starting XI, presumably as a squad-rotation exercise given the glut of four games in 10 days over the Festive period.
Within two minutes of restart, Sunderland had the chance to double their advantage and effectively kill the game but Dia Kite's shot in front of goal was, mercifully, deflected over the crossbar.
From then on, it was more or less all Everton. The goal, though, just wouldn't come. A succession of set-pieces were pumped into the opposition area but,when the Blues got the delivery right, which they didn't always manage to do, they couldn't find a way past Mannone or his defenders. The 'keeper denied Phil Jagielka's 55th-minute header, the rebound eluding Romelu Lukaku.
Thanks in part to the red and white wall in front of them and, perhaps, some impatience and desperation on Everton's part, Martinez's side were largely restricted to long-range shots and most of these were comfortably dealt with by Mannone, but the Sundeland' 'keeper had to be at his best on a number of occasions, too. He turned excellent shots by Barkley and Oviedo around the post to keep the Blues at bay and was fortunate to see another fine effort by the former flash two feet past his post.
That moment of individual magic that might have come from Gerard Deulofeu, had he been available, or Mirallas, had he been on the field, remained elusive, though, and as the game moved into the last 10 minutes, Barkley had resorted to shooting on sight, eschewing options inside the area in front of him.
The equaliser, and with it Everton's reward for racking up over 60% of the second-half possession despite being a man down, looked to have come came six minutes from time. Nikica Jelavic, who had come on for Steven Pienaar 11 minutes earlier, was hauled down in a dangerous area by Valentin Roberge and Barkley assumed the honours for the resulting free kick, waving the Croatian away. He curled a superb shot over the wall but Mannone was there again to palm the ball behind.
From the corner, Jelavic stooped with a header that beat the 'keeper but not Fabio Borini who headed off the line with the Gwladys Street end desperately trying to suck the ball into the net. It was not to be, though, and Sunderland held out for what was a priceless win for them and a major setback for Everton given how important every point will likely be in the context of the chance for a Champions League slot.
Martinez has no option now but to rally his troops and regroup for the visit of Southampton on Sunday which offers an quick opportunity to get back to winning ways. He will be without both Barry and Howard who will be suspended and, though Mauricio Pocchetino's side are struggling for form after their great start to the season, it will be a tough assignment so soon after a gut-busting game playing with 10 men for so long.
They've demonstrated their quality many times already this season, though, and the mental aspect of the challenge could be just as important after such a disappointing loss. It was at this point last season where things started to fall away; where Everton go from here will illustrate how different things can continue to be under Martinez.
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661 Posted 28/12/2013 at 21:47:02
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