As Evertonians dare to dream of a return to European competition next season, the importance of depth of squad has dominated both the discussion and Roberto Martinez's thinking as he outlines his summer team-building plans. It's clear, though, that it's going to take the collective efforts of his current roster of players and not just a set starting XI to achieve a feat that had looked beyond them five Premier League games ago, namely Champions League qualification.
Everton's victory at Craven Cottage this afternoon, their fifth straight in the League, was the perfect illustration. Martinez kept faith with the side that had so comprehensively beaten Newcastle last Tuesday but it was three players who didn't feature in the rout at St James' Park (Steven Naismith played eight minutes as a late substitute for Ross Barkley but the game was won by then) who combined to deliver the inspiration and impetus to deliver three priceless points that bring the Blues closer to Arsenal's heels in the race for fourth place.
Yet, as if to further emphasise the point, this contest against the bottom club perhaps turned on two saves by Tim Howard shortly after Fulham had clawed their way back to parity with an excellent goal by Ashkan Dejagah. The Iranian's 71s-minute strike was one of those moments where the Blues could have faltered and allowed the match to slip away but the American's denial of first John Heitinga and then Pajtim Kasami as the clock ticked into the final quarter of an hour provided the platform for Everton to go on and win comfortably in the end.
That 3-1 scoreline in Everton's favour seemed a world away at half time after 45 turgid minutes in which Fulham were the dominant team in terms of chances if not in possession. Everton managed just three efforts on goal and, from memory, only two were on target: one a shot by Barkley that David Stockdale in the home side's goal caught comfortably and the other a low shot by Gerard Deulofeu at the end of a selfish run that was also fairly routine for the 'keeper.
At the other end, James McCarthy's terrific lunging tackle blocked Kieran Richardson's drive in the 13th minute and Howard had to be alert to deny the same player after he'd been slipped in neatly by teenage debutant Moussa Dembele. Howard would also have to pull off his best moment of the half with 26 minutes gone when he palmed Lewis Holtby's header over his crossbar for a corner before closing out the half with another low save from Dembele's far-post header.
In stark contrast to the Newcastle game, the Blues seemed unable to find any space in the face of an effective pressing game employed by Felix Magath's team and everything about the performance just felt flat and uninspired. Fulham's high-pressure tactics threatened on a couple of occasions to force a crucial error from either John Stones or Sylvain Distin, the Frenchman prompted into a succession of sliced balls down the left flank that could only find touch before he was eventually caught dithering on the ball but he managed to get back and snuff out the ensuing attack.
When they were able to pick their way through Fulham, Everton were let down some fairly predictably and over-elaborate stuff from Deulofeu whose insistence on taking Jon Arne Riise on on the outside instead of mixing it up by cutting infield made him fairly easy to deal with. One electrifying moment from the Spaniard towards the end of the half created an opening for a teasing cross but neither Romelu Lukaku nor Barkley had gambled in the six-yard box and the ball flashed across the face of goal.
Barkley had not been expected to complete the first 45 minutes after taking a knock to his foot that had him hobbling badly for a few minutes before he seemed to have the complaint off but he did not reappear for the second half, his place in the team taken by Naismith. While, presumably, an enforced change, Naismith's introduction provided an instant source of movement and energy in the final third and that, combined with Everton's increased tempo after the restart, led to the game's opening goal in the 50th minute.
A surging run out of defence by Stones, one of many the teenage prodigy would make over the course of the game thanks to Martinez's effective tactic of dropping McCarthy and Gareth Barry into covering central defensive positions while Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman pushed high down the flanks, ended with Deulofeu forcing a corner off Riise on the Blues' right. Baines' kick was headed out by Richardson but only as far as Naismith lurking near the edge of the penalty area and when his volleyed shot came off the heel of William Kvist, Stockdale couldn't help but divert the ball into his own net.
Given Fulham's need for points and the tenacity they had shown throughout the game, it was clear that Everton would need a second goal. Baines, who it should be said was uncharacteristically poor for most of the game, should have provided it from a sublime reverse pass by Naismith but his clip across goal was neither a shot nor a pass to Lukaku and it bounced harmlessly past the far post. He then got in the way of Deulofeu as he tried to waltz through with dazzling feet a few minutes later and Lukaku came very close to scoring after a determined run but Stockdale saved well with his foot.
Fulham's equaliser would come nine minutes later from a lively substitute of their own. Dejagah cut in from the left, took full advantage of McCarthy losing his footing in front of him and smashed an Exocet into the top corner of Howard's goal. Everton's players confronted referee Anthony Taylor complaining about Heitinga's mauling of Naismith at the beginning of the move that led to the goal and their indignation might have turned to dejection had Howard not intervened with a one-handed save to stop the Dutch defender's far-post header in the 76th minute and then another stop with his legs to keep out Kasami as Fulham enjoyed a purple patch.
Martinez, who had earlier introduced Kevin Mirallas for the largely ineffective Osman, wrested the initiative back by throwing Aiden McGeady on for Deulofeu and the two subs combined brilliantly for the goal that restored Everton's lead. McGeady's defence-splitting ball was perfectly-weighted for Mirallas to take in stride and then pick his spot to place it past Stockdale. 2-1, and Fulham's resistance had been broken.
Lukaku's pass put Naismith in on goal but Stockdale was on hand to make the save but the goalkeeper was completely stranded when Mirallas went down under the attentions of two defenders and the ball broke to Baines in space in the box. He found Naismith with a square pass and the Scot took one touch before stabbing it into the corner of the goal to make it 3-1.
The ex-Rangers man almost capped a fine display with a second but drove his shot off the base of the post in the closing stages, the Blues denied the icing on the cake and extra padding to their goal difference as they narrowed the gap between themselves and Arsenal in the top five of the table.
So, five straight Premier League wins, two away from home in potentially tricky fixtures at St James' Park and Craven Cottage, and Everton genuinely have the look of a team that can sneak into the Champions League qualification places this season. For the second time in a week, they illustrated succinctly that football is a game played over 90 minutes, a good thing, too, because had their lacklustre first-half showing bled into the second period, they almost certainly would not have won this game.
That they did was credit to Naismith, who had the look of a one-dimensional journeyman type last season under David Moyes but who is now emerging as a player who can change matches with his industry, movement and goals, and to Martinez whose second-half changes inspired another handsome win.
Now, of course, the focus shifts to an encounter next weekend that could have massive ramifications for Everton's immediate and long-term future. Arsenal come to Goodison just four points above us having played a game more. Despite the Gunners' more attractive run-in, victory for the Blues would slash the lead to one point and put finishing in the Champions League spots in their own hands. With every win, that long-elusive dream inches closer and as long as Martinez's men continue to exhibit the drive and the winning mentality they have exhibited in their last five games, it could well happen.
Roberto Martinez honoured the players that secured the club's fourth Premier League win on the bounce with that superb 3-0 victory at Newcastle on Tuesday evening, by selecting the same starting line-up for today's early kick-off at Craven Cottage.
Everton started with some attacking intent when Osman played Lukaku into the area, and Heitinga did well to force an early corner, repeated by Deulofeu. But they allowed Fulham to attack, Holtby shooting high and wide, then Kasami firing across Howard's goal. There was some disconcerting contrast in the speed at which attacks were developed by each side, Everton laboured... Fulham surprisingly speedy.
Longer forward balls were employed by Everton but they lacked accuracy. Riise forced a corner for Fulham, taken well by Holtby and some good blocking by McCarthy for another Fulham corner headed on by Hangeland and almost headed in by Kasami.
Deulofeu got some better ball and tried a couple of neat low crosses but then overcooked the stepovers after Lukaku failed to anticipate a great one-two with Coleman. Everton's passing was a little out of sorts, Distin needlessly floating a forward ball out of play, Osman easily dispossessed, Baines forced to hoof. Meanwhile, Fulham were getting some quality balls behind the Everton defence, Richardson forcing a good save by Howard as the game opened up.
Deulofeu again got to the bye-line with a great dribbling run, forcing a save at the other end and then more chaos in the Fulham area but the ball would not reach Lukaku as things went from end to end. Then, Everton statuesque as Holtby forced a one-handed save from Howard. Sidwell then bamboozled Barry and played a great ball forward but Howard was alert to it.
Everton were rattled by the unexpected fervour of play from their hosts, young Dembélé keen to make an impression while Coleman was getting booked for holding Richardson back. Lukaku and Barkley were seeing very little of the ball, while Fulham were happily lashing wild shots mostly off target of the Everton goal. Deulofeu released again, another long run, but again, no end-product, Fulham getting back in disciplined fashion each time. Barkley did finally get a shot in on Stockdale.
Kasamai was especially determined in picking Barry's pocket and powering in on Howard for another Fulham chance. Everton's defence was tested repeatedly in a difficult first half as they could not get control of the game against a hugely motivated Fulham side. Deulofeu delivered a fantastic ball in that Barkley and Lukaku could only watch flash across the Fulham area.
No pressing by Everton, who kept backing off, inviting Holtby to swing a beauty over to Dembélé at the far post, his header thankfully straight at Howard, to end a rather disjointed half for the visitors, while Fulham will be hugely disappointed their spirited play had not produced a goal.
Martinez was forced to make a surprising change at the break, Naismith on for Barkley, who suffered from a heavy challenge, and he combined well with Lukaku missing his low cross that forced an early Everton corner. But Naismith's touch was poor, although Deulofeu was winning corners and from one, Naismith fired through a crowd to score, although Kvist defected it past the post only for the recovering Stockdale to kick into his own net.
Naismith and Deulofeu combined well down the Everton right, the Spaniard centreing a peach for Lukaku at the near post but the big man was a yard behind it, Naismith then played a beautiful pass for Baines who put in a peach of a chipped cross set perfectly for Lukaku at the far post but the big man was yet again a yard behind it. Another sweeping attack by Everton, a great cross in from Deulofeu to Lukaku who was a yard underneath it.
Deulofeu again went on another crazy run, but could do nothing with it at the end, as Felix Magath decided to change things up for one final push, while Lukaku tried to power his way in, lost it, but then got a chance and saw Stockdale stick out a leg to deny him the goal.
Everton looked to have stabilized the game, until Heitinga wrestled Naismith to the ground to set the Fulham play that would end in an absolutely superb shot from Dejagah that flashed past Howard at the near post, an unstoppable shot, that meant Everton had to do it all over again.
Everton were in a real tussle now, as both sides attacked with determination and there was incident at each end, Howard saving point blank from Heitinga's header right on the line, and then stopping a drive from Kasami. At the other end, McCarthy tried an acrobatic shot that fizzed across goal as the very even game.
McGeady almost his first touch on as sub, chested down a Howard clearance and swept the ball up to Mirallas who finally delivered a superb finish under pressure, squeezing his shot between Stockdale and the post, Fantastic stuff in a tremendous second of of all-action attaching football.
A terrific play by Everton saw McGeady work it to Lukaku, who fought off a defender to play in Naismith, and he seemed certain to score, but he could not beat Stockdale. Everton's passing was still letting them down at times but they kept playing the ball forward, looking for that third goal.... and it finally came, through tremendous fight and determination, the ball finally reaching Naismith to prod it past Stockdale this time, and send the 6,000 Everton fans behind the goal into raptures.
In the end, it was an excellent second half of football with Everton playing the way they should have in the first half, and producing a very fine victory that hopefully keeps the pressure up on Arsenal. Five wins in a row for the first time in 11½ years.
After recording their fourth Premier League win on the bounce with that superb 3-0 victory at Newcastle on Tuesday evening, Everton have vaulted themselves back into the Champions League picture.
Six points behind Arsenal with a game in hand and the Gunners still to visit Goodison Park next weekend, all of a sudden there is a glimmer of hope that the top-four finish that looked destined to elude the Blues once more could be a possibility.
The manner of Everton's destruction of the Barcodes is really what has unbridled much of the mostly cautious optimism among Evertonians in recent days. Coming on the heels of three consecutive home wins, all earned in a fashion that arguably fell short of top-four standard, Roberto Martinez's masterstroke team selection at St James' Park and the ensuing magic from the likes of Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu has instilled a belief among fans and team alike that we might just have the ability and the momentum to dislodge Arsenal from their perennial spot in the Champions League qualification places.
There is an awfully long way to go, of course, and the kind of pitfall that has undone Everton teams in the past lies in wait at Craven Cottage this Sunday. Not only have the Blues stumbled in this kind of match where the expectation of victory has either weighed on them too heavily or let complacency creep in but they have had their problems when playing the team propping up the division on a couple of occasions already this season.
A 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace represented another of those frustrating draws that, in the final reckoning, may yet prove responsible if we miss out on the top four, while the home defeat to Sunderland, albeit in the mitigating circumstances of Tim Howard' sending off, was equally damaging.
Fulham, vulnerable but scrapping for their lives under new manager Felix Magath and possessing the advantage of Craven Cottage, the tight environs of which have been a perennial problem for Everton teams down the years, could prove to be equally difficult to overcome if Everton are not on the top of their game.
Martinez is aided by a relatively clean bill of health for his squad, though, with Steven Pienaar the only short-term absentee likely to be missing. The manager confirmed in his pre-match press conference that Phil Jagielka is now fully fit but it remains to be seen whether he plays it ultra-cautious regarding his readiness and keeps John Stones in the line-up. The young defender had to have 10 stitches in a gash above his eyebrow on Tuesday but that won't keep him out of the team if he is needed.
Martinez's squad-rotation policy where the attacking midfield players is concerned makes predicting his starting XI something of a challenge. Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu starred at St James' Park in front of Leon Osman and all three made a case for continuing in the team given how well they worked as a triumverate in concert with Romelu Lukaku up front. The Spanish winger also enjoyed himself on his first visit to this ground in the Carling Cup back in September where, despite utterly dominating Fulham for much of the match, the Blues still lost 2-1.
Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady will be champing at the bit after missing out entirely against Newcastle and that kind of hunger can only stand Martinez in good stead over the remaning eight games.
The nub of Everton's situation, though, is that the heroics and thrill of Tuesday's win will mean nothing if they can't put struggling Fulham away and take three points back to Merseyside ahead of the visit of Arsenal. Arsene Wenger's side face a huge challenge against Manchester City at the Emirates but then have a relatively smooth run-in after their trip to Goodison so the Blues are going to need to amass as many points as possible.
A performance of the intensity, focus and incisiveness with which they beat the Toon will be the order of the day.
If they can register a fifth consecutive League win, it will be only the second time they have managed the feat in the Premier League era and it would certainly keep both their momentum alive and keep the pressure on the teams around them to pick up points themselves.
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