Everton 2 - 1 Southampton
After that bitterly disappointing Boxing Day defeat to Sunderland, anything short of three points would have seriously dented Everton's Champions League charge but, in a hugely encouraging demonstration of their character and ability, Roberto Martinez's much-changed team came through with a vital victory.
Not for the first time this season, the Blues responded to the ceding of an equalising goal by kicking into a higher gear and scoring again themselves in fine fashion, Romelu Lukaku ending his mini-drought with a sweeping finish with 16 minutes to go.
The Belgian's ninth goal of the season was a worthy winner of a tightly- and keenly-contested match between two good teams who play with very similar styles. Indeed, perhaps because of the evenness of the match-up and the evidence of some mental fatigue among Everton's players, it felt for long periods like this game was going to end up with honours even.
Certainly, the Blues lacked their usual composure and organisation and, with their insistence on playing loose passes in front of their penalty area, they seemed to be constantly toeing a tightrope above the kind of calamity that was their undoing against Sunderland on Thursday. The Premier League's best defence held firm, though, the breach coming from a blistering 30-yard strike by Gaston Ramirez that embarrassed Joel Robles and threatened to earn Mauricio Pocchettino's side a point.
A draw would not have flattered Saints who achieved the rare feat of finishing a game at Goodison with the lion's share of possession. But just two shots on target in the 90 minutes told the story of how little they troubled Robles, thanks largely to the home side's excellent defence. With Phil Jagielka ruled out with an apparent hamstring strain, Antolin Alcaraz slotted into central defence with the same calm assurance of the man he replaced to form a solid partnership with Sylvain Distin.
Leighton Baines made his anticipated return from a broken toe at left back, Bryan Oviedo moving forward to left midfield as Steven Pienaar started the match on the substitute's bench, but it was the other fullback, Seamus Coleman, who lit up the contest after just eight minutes with another stunning individual goal.
Everton had already threatened with a lovely move in which the Irishman had been involved, playing a low cross for Ross Barkley to finish off a move he had started with a trademark surging run from the halfway line, but the 20 year-old couldn't get enough power to beat Kelvin Davis.
But Coleman took matters into his own hands five minutes later when he drove towards the Southampton area, glided past James Ward-Prowse before smashing the ball into the top corner from the angle. It was a delicious goal that further cements his burgeoning reputation as one of the finest right backs in the Premier League and one of the best bargains in history.
In response, the visitors settled into a pattern of possession-based probing but they made few inroads in the Everton defence until the last few minutes of the first half. Adam Lallana's impressive control and flick past Distin put him in with a gilt-edged chance to level before the break but he pulled his shot wide of goal. And Ricky Lambert couldn't capitalise on a rare cock-up by Distin in his own box, bouncing a tame shot straight at Robles.
Being used to their side being so dominant with the ball, the Goodison crowd betrayed some nerves in the second half as Southampton continued their quest for an equaliser, often looking more like the home side than Everton. Indeed, in the 15 minutes either side of half time, the Blues' main threat had come from on the counter-attack.
The Saints had survived a dangerous moment when Oviedo popped up completely free in their area but Jose Fonte cut out Lukaku's attempt to find him with a cross from the right in the 37th minute. And a sweeping break by Everton 10 minutes after the restart so nearly brought a second goal as Lukaku released Oviedo with a terrific pass down the left and Barkley just missed with a side-footed finish from the Costa Rican's cut-back from the byline.
The unease among the home support was not helped by uncharacteristic sloppiness from Everton in central areas where they were giving the ball away or playing themselves into trouble with annoying regularity. Southampton were able to exploit the Gareth Barry-sized hole in front the Blues' back four too often for comfort and though he still managed to emerge from the game with enormous credit and an assist for the winner, James McCarthy had arguably his worst game since joining from Wigan in terms of his distribution. If nothing else, that underscores just how good a player he is and what a signing he has proved to be.
The 23 year-old was almost caught out with an awful pass straight to Jay Rodriguez in the 56th minute but, typically, raced back to atone for the error by diverting Lallana's cross safely into Robles' arms. 11 minutes later, the Blues' number 16 was in the right place at the right time to deflect Rodriguez's shot a yard wide as the Gwladys Street end held it's breath.
Playing in place of the suspended Tim Howard, Robles was tentative at times, not least when he and Distin got into a mix-up from a 67th-minute corner and the goalkeeper almost spilled the ball to the feet of Lambert but he pounced on the loose ball in time.
Huge question marks were raised four minutes after that, though, when Southampton equalised. Ramirez, a second-half substitute for the visitors in place of Jack Cork, tried an audacious shot from just shy of 30 yards having side-stepped McCarthy and the ball flew between Robles' hands with the 'keeper somehow failing to get any contact on it.
1-1 and, once again, an opportunity for the Everton of old to re-emerge and battle to hold onto a point at a time of the season where psychology can so often be the biggest enemy. Martinez responded immediately by withdrawing Osman for Kevin Mirallas, though, and the Blues were back in the lead within four minutes.
It was a superbly-worked goal, too. Baines fed Steven Pienaar, who had replaced Oviedo on the left flank after an hour, and he picked out the run of McCarthy with a perfectly-weighted throughball that caught the Saints defence cold with just Fonte back in a central position. McCarthy flicked the ball to his right with the outside of his boot to meet the run of Lukaku and he swept it home, first time.
2-1, the lead re-established and this time the Blues looked more comfortable and assured in defending it because Southampton didn't threaten much after that. Indeed, it was Everton who looked more likely to kill the game off which they almost did through Lukaku. The striker looked a player reborn after the goal and after being denied by a couple of close offside calls, he displayed wonderful feet on the edge of thre Saints box to dance past a couple of red shirts before clipping a shot just over the crossbar from 18 yards.
And Davis had to be alert with a minute to go when the ball fell to Lukaku's feet after good work by Mirallas and he side-footed towards the bottom corner but the 'keeper pushed the ball behind on the stretch.
So, three enormously important points that see the Blues back to winning ways and positioned in fourth place heading into the New Year. The performance failed to hit the heights again but in this intense period of games coming in quick succession, the results are often more important that the quality of the football.
Martinez made some brave selection decisions, not least to start Steven Naismith ahead of Mirallas, but he was rewarded with an excellent shift from the Scotsman and aided by the freshness offered by his substitutes that helped win the game. The Spaniard will be very pleased with an accomplished display from Alcaraz who looked like he has been playing alongside Distin all season long but he will also be thankful to get Barry back for the trip to Stoke on New Year's Day because the midfield certainly looked less assured without him.
With the top three starting to look ominous in their recent form, that trip down the M6 to the Potteries takes on real importance as Everton look to stay in touch with Arsenal, City and Chelsea but Martinez's men have shown a resilience and potency away from home in recent weeks that means they will travel in confidence. As has become the mantra this season: just keep winning.
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972 Posted 29/12/2013 at 19:41:21
Everton have won ALL 7 of the games in which Martinez has made two or more changes to his lineup.
Unchanged, the Toffees have won just once in 6 games this season.
Bit of a whizz-kid with the rotations then is our Roberto they've worked every time.
016 Posted 29/12/2013 at 22:36:45
I'm starting to believe Roberto is a genius.
032 Posted 30/12/2013 at 00:33:22
036 Posted 30/12/2013 at 00:41:53
038 Posted 30/12/2013 at 00:36:04
Oviedo looks very comfortable playing in midfield to me, a definite plus there. When you think about it, our squad is not as bare as some make out.
We started without 7 first team players today!
Howard, Jagielka, Barry, Gibson, Mirallas, Pienaar and Deulofeu.
Two more decent signings will see us nicely through the second half of the season. That's two losses from the first half of the season.... I believe.
040 Posted 30/12/2013 at 01:12:21
041 Posted 30/12/2013 at 00:53:39
Depends what you compare it with. Compared to the size of squad and strength in depth of the teams that tend to finish in the top four it is still 'weak'.
That doesn't mean we don't have quality players or can't compete with pretty much anyone on our day, but it does mean that three of our most valuable contributors this season don't belong to us, we are partially reliant on experienced pros being able to perform consistently well into their 'twilight years', we have several squad members who have worrying injury histories, and unless we strengthen in January we will need a tremendous amount of luck with injuries for the second half of the season (which will be the most grueling) to stay in contention.
Alongside their supposed frugality, kopites will also tell you their squad is now as small as ours. Well, there are plenty of their players I wouldn't look twice at but I wouldn't mind seeing what I could do with the money they have cost in transfer fees and wages, and they are able to loan out the likes of Assaidi and Borini to other Premier League clubs. When we can do that then I will accept that we at least have achieved parity with the sort of team we are looking to out-compete.
044 Posted 30/12/2013 at 01:31:46
Every player is for sale with our ownership, so every player could be playing elsewhere next season. Add two decent first team players and we have enough depth.
Martinez isn't looking for excuses why we can't compete, so it's bizarre that some of the support are intent on finding reasons why we will fail.
048 Posted 30/12/2013 at 01:48:00
Part of being a squad goes beyond the here and now, and I would hope people at the club are looking at things long-term and with an eye on continuity. We are not going to sell a large group of our current players any time soon, but we could lose a significant proportion of them before next season (or during the second half of this one) for a number of different reasons. Call it preparing, as best you can, for worst case scenarios.
If the manager is looking for further progress next season, he will not wait until the summer transfer window to start integrating potential replacements in the event that we don't get to keep hold of Lukaku and Deulofeu, and really they need to be of the same quality which we probably can't conjure from our ranks of injured or the U21s.
Useful as these players are we are essentially developing them for someone else's benefit not our own, and their presence is masking the deficiencies in our squad that would ideally be filled with players we can decide the fate of.
I am not saying we shouldn't use the loan system as much as we can, just that it is not the ideal solution and potentially a large gamble if we come to rely on just the right players being available year on year to make up our squad numbers.
056 Posted 30/12/2013 at 03:06:59
We all thought Heitinga's departure was a foregone conclusion. But now, with Jags out for a month, our CBs are a newcomer with a history of injury and a 36-year-old who has played every minute this season.
And their only cover is a brilliant teenager who has never yet played CB for the first team.
So does Roberto keep Heitinga through the January window? Or let him go and bring in another loaner? Or go with what he's got now?
094 Posted 30/12/2013 at 09:17:36
099 Posted 30/12/2013 at 09:47:42
101 Posted 30/12/2013 at 09:56:25
102 Posted 30/12/2013 at 09:58:20
Coleman's goal was world class, and the right flank are now ahead of the left and didn't know we were above Liverpool until MotD2. That put a smile on my face. That and Suarez rolling around and getting nothing.
Shame about Robles's mistake, he looks like a decent 'keeper.
103 Posted 30/12/2013 at 10:13:38
122 Posted 30/12/2013 at 11:42:24
And bring Garbutt back!
149 Posted 30/12/2013 at 13:42:54
That's where all this confidence comes from. Next time anyone gets annoyed at Martinez's positivity, remember that he's built a system that he and the players believe in. He's also encouraging players who can break out of the system and do the extraordinary, like Seamus, Ross and Del.
We won yesterday because we had better quality in both boxes. Other than his moistake I liked Robles. I'd like to see at least one more forward to give us more up front, especially if Lukaku and Del leave in the summer.
151 Posted 30/12/2013 at 13:56:55
"When you think about it, our squad is not as bare as some make out."
Depends what you compare it with.
Well, across the park, Brenda's been moaning to the press about lack of squad size.
Apparently they've no strength in depth compared to the big boys in the top 4 and will have to get the cheque book out (unusually!) in January apparently.
All together ..... aaaagh.
155 Posted 30/12/2013 at 14:10:33
I remember afterwards Klinsmann said that the players had such a belief in themselves and their system that they knew they were going to win.
Well the buggers did and I'm getting the same feel from this team.
203 Posted 30/12/2013 at 15:51:51
Like you, my heart bleeds for the poor hard-done-by muppets.
258 Posted 30/12/2013 at 18:10:03
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