Whatever will be, will be. With the dilemma that dominated the thinking of many an Evertonian in the lead-up, that really was the only way to look at this game. The thought of wanting Everton to lose for any reason – in this case, to potentially deny Liverpool a first League title in 24 years – just doesn't sit well and though our Champions League hopes were hanging by a very thin thread, while the possibility was still there, surely you had to pull for the Blues to win regardless of the implications for the title race.
After all, the continuation of Everton's hoodoo over Manchester City and a victory over Manuel Pellegrini's men would have reduced the gap between ourselves and Arsenal to a point and anything short of a win for the Gunners tomorrow would have taken the chase for fourth place down to the final day of the season. Football is a funny game; anything can happen. But the point is, of course, moot now. Thanks to defeats for Manchester United and Tottenham, Everton were assured of qualification for the Europa League but a push for the big one will have to resume in August.
Those results in the earlier kick-off might have tipped some, for whom securing that last point that, coming into this weekend would have guaranteed Europe, was paramount, towards either apathy about today's game at Goodison or possibly wanting to see City win. But once the match had kicked off, that deeply ingrained desire to support your team to victory took hold. Granted, it wasn't the bearpit that greeted Arsenal and Manchester United in recent weeks when the stakes felt that much higher but there was a lively atmosphere that erupted in the 11th minute to laud a moment of pure magic from Ross Barkley.
If the 20-year-old's performance last week – in a team display that plumbed the depths relative to what has been an excellent season – was poor, today was a marked role reversal and a superb individual showing was exemplified by his opening goal. Steven Naismith, playing off Romelu Lukaku at the spearhead of a 3-4-1-2 formation, laid the ball off to Barkley outside the opposition penalty area where he swept an audacious, arcing, first-time shot over Joe Hart and into the City net from 25 yards out. Any notion that Everton's players were going to roll over were dispelled by a stunning strike from one of the biggest Evertonians on the pitch.
City needed to respond and did. And after Yaya Toure had scooped over the crossbar from around 15 yards out with a quarter of an hour gone and Barkley had, probably correctly, seen penalty appeals waved away at the other end, the Ivorian was the architect of the visitors' equaliser midway through the first half. He sucked Antolin Alcaraz out of the Blues' back line before slipping the ball to Sergio Aguero and the Argentine drove into the area and drilled a shot between Tim Howard and the near post.
If that felt as though the feldgeling three-man defence had been breached a little too easily, City's second a couple of minutes before half time was just as bad. Howard had done well to deny Edin Dzeko from the angle but when the ball came back out to James Milner and he swung the ball back towards the penalty spot, Dzeko rose unchallenged to head past the American with a well-directed effort.
An injury-time chance for Lukaku was served up by John Stones but he blazed high over the bar with a first-time shot.
If there was a pivotal minute or so in the match, it came immediately after the restart from the half-time interval. Barkley went on one of his scintillating charges straight through the centre of the opposition and played Naismith in on the edge of the area as he nipped in ahead of Pablo Zabaleta. The Scot seemed odds-on to score as he side-footed towards the bottom corner but Hart finger-tipped his shot past the far post.
The resulting corner was wasted and a minute later it was 3-1. Nasri collected a neat ball over the top of the Everton defence and the profited from the space afforded him by Stones to deliver a low cross that Dzeko side-footed home from a central position in front of goal.
Pellegrini's strategy of retreating into a game of containment when Everton had the ball and then hitting them with quick movement on the counter-attack was proving to be highly effective and it was one with which he persisted as the second half wore on. Their resolute back line and disciplined shape made for a difficult barrier for the Blues to break down and it took an excellent cross from Leighton Baines to make the breakthrough.
The England international delivered the ball behind the City defence and Lukaku launched himself towards it, crashing a header in off the post to make it 3-2 with 25 minutes left.
Both teams had chances to add to the scoreline in what was an increasingly fascinating and more even half. Zabaleta powered into the area but Howard foiled him with an outstretched foot and Leon Osman got a crucial block on Martin Demichelis a minute later to stop his goal-bound shot.
The moment that had City hearts in mouths, though, came in the 86th minute when Barkley, exhibiting yet more sublime poise and balance as he wriggled away from David Silva and Dzeko and drove to the byline. He forced a tackle from Gael Clichy that handed possession back to substitute Gerard Deulofeu and the Spaniard embarked on one of his own dazzling runs that ended with Hart making a vital save that diverted his shot into the side-netting.
Thanks to a bizarre injury incident involving Dzeko where he was booked by Lee Probert for lying prone on the Goodison turf and not going off for treatment, the visitors were forced to endure six minutes of injury time but they would see it out safely. By that stage, in your heart of hearts, you knew that if the Blues weren't going to win it – a point was more or less useless – then maybe it was time to hold up your hands and accept a defeat that has a good chance of robbing the rabble from across the Park of the Title. Que sera and all that.
Everton had contributed mightily to an entertaining contest but were undone by charitable defending against a team that exhibited all the purpose and drive their own supporters would have wanted to see given what was at stake for them. Roberto Martinez and his team duly bathed in the warmth of rousing appreciation from the Goodison faithful during a lap of honour after the final whistle to celebrate an impressive first season under the Spaniard's management.
The Blues can now go to Hull City knowing that a fifth place finish is guaranteed and that they can finish the campaign on a high with 72 points if they can pick up three points in their last match. The Champions League proved to be just beyond out reach but Martinez has built a terrific platform on which to build towards that next season... on both the domestic and European fronts.
As other results confirm Everton will play in Europe next season, Phil Jagielka returns to the starting line-up after being out for the last 10 weeks with a hamstring injury. It looks like he will form part of a back three with Stones and Alcaraz; Leighton Baines has shaken off the knocks he picked up at Southampton last weekend. Man City start with David Silva on the bench, with Gareth .
The game got off to a reasonably lively start in front of a packed Goodison Park crowd, with Man CIty beginning to push the home side back in the early exchanges. But Naismith did get a shot in, though well wide. Barkley was doing his best to exert midfield control, spraying passes out toward Coleman on the wing, as the Blues produced some impressive possession football, albeit in their own half. But Jagielka gave away the first corner of the game, headed at Howard by Garcia.
Ten minutes in and a moment of pure magic from Ross Barkley fired Everton into a wonderful early lead, as he clipped a beautiful first-time shot way beyond Hart and into the top corner of the net from a difficult angle beyond the edge of the area, a brilliant goal off Naismith's cross ball.
City tried to respond, Yaya Toure dodging Osman but firing over. They were doing their best to get behind on Everton's flanks. But an amazing sequence of Everton passing denied City a single touch for what seemed like 5 mins before Coleman way overhit his cross. Barkley then battled his way into the City box, stumbled through a sandwich between two City defenders, surely an illegal challenge and a fair shout for a penalty, but he recovered and tried to reclaim the ball.
However, at the other end, from nothing, Aguero got wide of a smart ball from Toure and drove the ball unerringly between Howard and his near post, Howard making no attempt to stop it. 1-1. But Agureo had strained his groin with the power of his shot, and would need treatment before substitution by Fernandinho, as Baines won Everton their first corner.
Everton were bringing the ball forward very slowly against City's massed defence, and some odd decisions then saw Probert book Garcia for multiple offences as he showed some dissent. Naismith did well to turn his man but then foolishly chose to shoot from fully 30 yards, well wide. City went up the other end, Dzeko first fired into Howard's legs, then nodded an unmarked header inside the post from a good Milner cross to give City the lead.
Martinez switched things a little, back to a back 4 with Coleman moving ahead of Stones on the right. Barkley started the second half with a wonderful run straight down the middle at pace, playing in Naismith whose brilliant goal-bound shot was just touched wide by Hart's fingertips. City went up the other end and Nasri played in a simple cross for a simple tap-in by Dzeko to gave City an almost unassailable lead.
Coleman got some space and cut in to feed Barkley who won a corner to nought despite lots of effort from the Everton players to get back into the game, but the build-ups were really still too slow to trouble City. Barkley tried to fire one through to Lukaku but it was too strong for the Big Belgian, who was having no effect on the game, and was offside for a nice chipped ball from Naismith, but then got on the end of a great ball in from Baines (albeit from a fractionally offside position!) and powered in his header past Hart and off the post: 2-3.
Deulofeu replaced Jagielka after the goal, as Everton pressed for the equalizer into the last 20 mins. Howard then saved well with his foot from Zabaleta, and a wicked City corner caused havoc before two more blocked shots threatened the Everton goal. Naismith was elbowed by Zabaleta.
Dzeko slipped trying to challenge Barkley and it led to a bizarre 'standoff' with Probert insisting that he wasn't injured and should get up, as he pulled out his yellow card, deep in conversation with Kompany, while all the players milled around in confusion. Finally, the fourth official seemed to authorize the stretcher, and Dzeko finally got treatment for what he claimed to be a shoulder injury, as McGeady replaced Osman, and Dzeko finally ambled off the field after a stoppage of 4 mins, grimacing in pain and clutching his shoulder, getting a massive bird off the Goodison crowd for his troubles...
In the last five minutes, two fabulous runs into the City area, first from Barkley and then sheer brilliance from Deulofeu forced a superb point-blank save by Hart that took the ball just the wrong side of the post as Everton pushed hard to level the game as only 6 mins of added time were shown.
City attacked and Silva won a late corner, but chose to run down the clock and deny Everton possession for their high pressing tempo as the game finally ended after nearly 7 mins of added time and Everton finally surrender 4th place.
Everton gear up for the penultimate match, the last in front of the home faithful, of Roberto Martinez's first season in charge with title-chasing Manchester City the visitors in a game that has enormous implications for both the Premier League title race and the battle to finish in fifth place and has the potential to be significant where the fourth and final Champions League spot is concerned.
With Arsenal occupying fourth place, four points clear of the Blues, Everton's hopes of getting a shot at Europe's elite club competition are hanging by a thread but they remain in with a shout should the Gunners fail to win both of their remaining games and Martinez's men get maximum points from theirs.
It is not completely out of the question; Arsenal face West Bromwich Albion in the lunchtime kick-off on Sunday, a team that is not yet out of the relegation woods and which has sprung a couple of surprises already this season. They should by rights have ended Jose Mourinho's much-vaunted unbeaten home record months before Sunderland eventually did but were robbed of a win by the arguably the softest penalty award of the season, and were also the first team to win at Old Trafford this season.
The fact that they have been leaking goals recently and were beaten fairly convincingly by Manchester City in their last away game won't have Evertonians feeling all that confident about the Baggies' prospects at the Emirates – nor indeed will Arsenal's ominous form since been demolished at Goodison last month – but they can be unpredictable.
In the fifth-place stakes, Tottenham are the most realistic threat to Everton finishing in the top Europa League-qualifying slot but Manchester United could still edge us on goal difference if they won all their remaining fixtures and we lost both of ours. Defeat for Spurs side at Upton Park against West Ham in the early kick-off would mean they couldn't catch us and could really change the character of the contest against City from the crowd's perspective.
Indeed, with enough Evertonians having voiced their insistence that they would be quite happy to see the Blues lose to Manuel Pellegrini's team if it meant that City would be one step closer to edging Liverpool for the title, the vibes on Saturday afternoon could be very different from the usual raucous atmosphere that greets top-four sides at Goodison and which has contributed to the Citizens' downfall on numerous occasions in recent seasons.
Roberto Martinez is adamant that his men will be doing everything they can to win, not to do anyone any favours but because it is in their makeup to do so. And the Catalan has also been very clear that he won't be giving up on fourth until it is mathematically impossible. That means going for the three points that would keep the pressure on Arsenal to match that result a day later.
His cause is likely to be aided by the return of Phil Jagielka after 12 games on the sidelines with a hamstring injury. His usual partner, Sylvain Distin, is rated as more doubtful with a hamstring strain of his own so the captain could partner John Stones in central defence if Martinez favours giving the 19 year-old more experience over the veteran Antolin Alcaraz. The master and the apprentice first played together in January and helped Everton to a 2-1 win over Norwich City.
Elsewhere in the side, Martinez will need to shuffle things in midfield to replace Gareth Barry who is ineligible to play against his parent club, with Leon Osman likely to be tasked with playing a deeper-lying role alongside James McCarthy... that's assuming Darron Gibson doesn't make a surprise return. Ross Barkley could be deployed further forward while with Kevin Mirallas sidelined, of course, with a groin tear and Steven Pienaar not expected to be fit until next weekend, the final wide role would be a choice between Gerard Deulofeu and Aiden McGeady.
Pellegrini, meanwhile, travels with an almost fully-fit squad which will guarantee a stern test of Everton's excellent home record. In short, a point for Everton this weekend guarantees a minimum of sixth place; a win effectively guarantees fifth but failure to win on City's part would shift the advantage hugely in Liverpool's failure. If Martinez and his players are true to their word, it should make for a cracking match.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2013-14 Reports Index|
|Jagielka (66' Deulofeu)|
|Osman (83' McGeady)|
|Subs not used|
|MAN CITY (4-4-2)|
|Toure (66' Kolarov)|
|Nasri (74' Silva)|
|Aguero (28' Fernandinho)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Aston Villa||3-1||Hull City|
|Man City||4-0||West Ham|
|12||West Ham United||40|
|17||West Bromwich Albion||36|