Three games ago, having put Arsenal to the sword and then engineered a deserved but somewhat fortuitous win at Sunderland to extend their winning streak to seven matches, the prospect of another five consecutive Everton victories, however unlikely in the cold light of day, seemed so possible. Even if they didn't win them all, with only five defeats all season and just one at home, defeat in any of those final five games seemed unthinkable. The Blues were in a groove.
The crushing disappointment against Crystal Palace 10 days ago served as a firm reality check to that growing hubris but, with the stirring win over Manchester United last Sunday keeping Everton within a point of Arsenal, breathing down their necks just daring them to slip up, it was all back "on" again; that coveted top-four finish, improbable when Roberto Martinez arrived last summer, was still in sight.
Raised hopes were slapped down again today, though, most likely for good now for this season as a pair of first half own goals left the Blues staring at a mountain of their own making without much idea how to conquer it. Perhaps it was psychological, maybe physical – probably a combination of both with the added toll of a mounting catalogue of injuries – but Martinez's side just could not rediscover the spirit and swashbuckling attitude that has made them one of the most exciting and dangerous teams in the Premier League this season.
As starts to a must-win game go, conceding an own goal after 53 seconds is about as bad as it gets; scoring a second when your Champions League dreams are on the line is unthinkable. Yet Everton still had an hour remaining of the contest to salvage something, to make a fist of it and mount a memorable comeback but they managed just one effort of note on Artur Boruc's goal. And that told its own story.
Of course, more so perhaps than the other fixtures in the run-in, this trip to the south coast had always stuck out as a potential stumbling block because of the strength of Mauricio Pocchettino's team. Any hope that their minds had already drifted towards the summer or, in the case of the likes of Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw, were focused on self-preservation ahead of the World Cup, were largely dispelled by a lively and energetic opening by the Saints that yielded that very early goal.
A loose Ross Barkley pass from the kick off, aimed for Seamus Coleman but which was intercepted by Ricky Lambert, handed possession to the home side and with two quick passes through Lallana and Jack Cork they found Lambert in space down their left channel. John Stones, playing in a makeshift central defensive partnership with Antolin Alcaraz, allowed the striker a little too much space to flight a ball aimed at Sam Gallagher towards the six-yard box and the Paraguayan, stretching to reach it, headed straight past Tim Howard and into his own net. It's possible Gallagher would have headed it past Howard who was rooted to his line anyway but we'll never know.
It was a disastrous opening but need not have been catastrophic and the Blues responded with some pressure on the Saints goal. Coleman found Romelu Lukaku with a low cross from the right in the fourth minute but as the Belgian met it on the run, he could only sky it over the crossbar. And a couple of typically impotent corners came to nothing before Gerard Deulofeu bounced a tame short goalwards that Boruc safely gathered.
With Kevin Mirallas out injured, it was the Spaniard who was charged with providing the threat and trickery in a front three rounded out by Steven Naismith but, deployed on the left flank instead of his more familiar role on the right, he struggled to make any impact in the first half. Almost nothing he tried came off and in one instance he killed a fast-moving attack dead by holding the ball up in order to try his step-over routine and the move broke down.
Whether Martinez's decision to deploy Deulofeu on the left was an uncharacteristic one based on an opposition strength in the form of Luke Shaw or simply to accommodate Lukaku playing more on the right as he did against Arsenal was unclear but he looked a little lost on that side of the field. That was more or less underlined when he briefly switched flanks late in the first half and went past Shaw in trademark fashion before flinging in a cross that Lukaku couldn't get sufficiently above and his header flew over. It was a rare moment of success for the Spanish forward but, surprisingly, he quickly returned to the opposite flank.
In between, it had been Southampton who generally looked the more dangerous side going forward and Steven Davis went very close when he side-footed Lambert's set-up inches wide of Howard's left-hand post.
With half an hour on the clock, the Blues' afternoon went from bad to worse and, again, it was a self-inflicted wound, albeit another unfortunate one. Nathaniel Clyne was afforded the room to whip in a cross from the right which neither Alcaraz nor Stones got a head to as Coleman clearly expected one of them would so when the ball arrived at the Irishman at the back post he sent an instinctive cushioned header back towards goal. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near Howard who was, again, helpeless as he watched the ball nestle in his net.
You sensed that Everton badly needed a goal before the break and though it didn't arrive before half time, when Barkley, who had largely been anonymous, was withdrawn in favour of Leon Osman, they looked to have carved out a terrific scoring chance within two minutes of the start of the second half. Infuriatingly, Deulofeu was wrongly flagged offside while latching on to Naismith's pass and the Blues were denied the opportunity to quickly halve the deficit.
As if that wasn't bad enough, when Osman was scythed down by Dejan Lovren inside the Saints area just past the hour mark, not only was no penalty given – it was one of those incidents near the byline where the referees bottle it and explain it away with the rationale that the ball was going out of play – but the Everton midfielder was booked for simulation.
When taken in concert with blatant shirt tugging by Jack Cork on Garry Barry at a free kick in the first half that went either unnoticed or unchecked by the officials, the Deulofeu offside incident and a later tussle between Lovren and James McCarthy where the defender visibly pulled the Irish international to the ground and you had a handful of potentially game-changing decisions all go against Everton. Prior to today, the Blues hadn't lost a game officiated by Michael Oliver and they might not want to see his boyish mug again any time soon after this performance.
Though Southampton never really eased up, their two-goal cushion meant that they weren't exactly causing Howard much grief in their final third either, although Lambert did drive a direct free kick off the outside of the post and James Ward-Prowse later forced a two-handed parry from the American in injury time.
The period in between was merely more of Everton struggling to make attacking headway and they had little to show for it beyond the best chance of the half that Lukaku planted straight into the goalkeeper's arms from substitute Aiden McGeady's cross from close range. Either side of the keeper...
It capped another worryingly ineffective display from the 20-year-old striker who looked anything but the £25m-rated striker on whose shoulders rest so many of Belgium's World Cup hopes, but he wasn't alone. There was a collective flatness to almost the entire side and a noticeable gap between the midfield and the attack when the team went forward. Rather than come forward as a wave to flood the Southampton back line, Everton seemed to lose their way once they got near the opposition area where they found the Saints in uncompromising mood.
Had Martinez elected to hook one of his holding midfielders at 2-0 down and re-shuffled things to bring Barkley more into the game, it might have injected some energy into proceedings but, ultimately, it was a curiously lifeless display from a team with so much to play for. There appears to have been a steady dropping off the intricate, possession-based football espoused by the manager, and which has characterised so much of the campaign, in favour of a more direct approach in recent weeks; absent that attacking verve today, there was little swagger and incisiveness to their play.
The litany of injuries that has robbed Martinez of Arouna Koné, Darron Gibson, Steven Pienaar, Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Lacina Traoré and Kevin Mirallas hasn't helped either and it's left him with few match-winning options from the bench these days.
The light may not be out on Everton's hopes of finishing in the top four but it is now flickering ominously, waiting perhaps to be all but extinguished by Arsenal on Monday evening when, surely, they will beat a Newcastle United team on a run of embarrassingly bad form. The task must now be to claim the point that would guarantee Europa League football next season and, hopefully, edge out Tottenham to finish fifth. With a record points haul and so much learned from Martinez's first season in charge, that would still represent a fantastic season for Everton, with bright hope for a more sustained top-four push next term.
With an increasingly lengthening injury list, had Roberto Martinez made another horrible miscalculation, going for it from the off with a very attacking line-up consisting of Naismith, Barkley, Deulofeu and Lukaku all starting?
It looked ominous when Everton gave the ball away to the home side immediately from the kick-off and, sure enough, the first Southampton foray forward saw Lambert lift in an early cross from the left past Stones and on to Antolin Alcaraz, who launched himself like a javelin to head the ball with unerring accuracy past poor Tim Howard in the Everton goal. Southampton 1 - 0 Everton, inside the first minute.
Everton set about the task of redressing the balance manfully but Lukaku was profligate in the extreme as he scooped a fine cross from Naismith high over the Saints goal. Coleman and Deulofeu were doing their best to get behind the home defence and go for crosses or shots but nothing really came off for them.
Naismith went down after a painful clash of knees and needed a lot of attention on the sidelines. While he was off the pitch, Lambert got into a good position and seemed all set to lay on the second goal for Shaw fired incredibly wide with the Everton goal gaping.
Clyne went in a little hard on Deulofeu to set up a good free-kick opportunity that looked to have been curved in perfectly for Barry, whose shirt was being well held and he could not get to the header. While at the other end, another stunning disaster, Coleman this time stooping to head Clyne's cross past Howard as he expected Stones ahead of him to clear the ball. Un-fucking-believable!
After a couple of fruitless corners, Deulofeu switched to the right and whipped in a fantastic ball, too strong for Lukaku who could not adjust his body position to head the ball down and it flew off his head and over from very close range. It was a rare cross, as the Southampton fullbacks were mostly on top and denying many real chances on Boruc's goal.
Barry had his pocket picked by Gallagher and was forced to give away a silly free-kick that fortunately came to nothing as a stunning first half came to a close.
Roberto made a change at the break, Osman coming on for Barkley, who had struggled to make a real impression in the first half. Naismith picked out Deulofeu with a great pass but the Barcelona player was wrongly penalized for offside. But the first portion of the half was poor with Everton unable to match the home side, Martinez switching out Deulofeu for McGeady.
Barry was not having the best of games and he gave away a clumsy free-kick that Lambert almost curled in, clipping the outside of the post. Everton were then wrongly denied a penalty when Osman clipped the ball past Lovren and got his heels clipped for his troubles, sending him sprawling just inside the area. A dive, said the card-wielding Oliver, to Osman's astoundment. Everton were clearly getting nothing from this game.
A much better spell of play from the Blues won a corner but McGeady swung it too far wide as Southampton continued to block all of Everton's attempts to get a sight on the home goal. A cross-cum-shot from Baines almost deceived Boruc. Lukaku was having a nightmare, whatever he tried to do.
Another odd refereeing decision in front of the Everton contingent, Lovren stopping McCarthy from getting up after they had both tussled to the ground on the bye-line. Luke Garbutt came on for his debut as a late sub for Baines, as Ward-Prowse fired off a shot that Howard saved well near the end of a very disappointing performance.
It felt improbable eight months ago as Everton embarked on a season of transition from the 11-year Moyes era to a bright new future under Roberto Martinez but Everton sit just one point off the Champions League places with only three games left to play.
Unfortunately, since being demolished at Goodison Park three weeks ago, Arsenal's recent revival – thanks in no small measure to the return to fitness of some of their walking wounded like Aaron Ramsey and Mezut Ozil – combined with their comparatively easy run-in means that that solitary point's difference feels like a chasm.
Roberto Martinez, however, remains convinced that the door remains open for Everton which, should the Gunners slip up against Newcastle, West Brom or Norwich in the next three weeks, it certainly will provided the Blues just keep winning.
The first challenge in that regard is a lunchtime date at Southampton, a fixture that, on paper, looked daunting a few weeks ago but has taken on a different complexion as Mauricio Pochettino's men seem to have eased up over the past couple of matches.
A combination of Jay Rodriguez's season-ending injury and a general lack of anything substantive to play for has perhaps contributed to a run of three games without a win, including a 4-1 drubbing at Manchester City and a surprise home defeat to Cardiff at the St Mary's Stadium a fortnight ago.
That one-foot-on-the-beach syndrome will hopefully play in Martinez's hands this weekend as he looks to pick up another victory that would keep the pressure on Arsenal who face Alan Pardew's increasingly sorry Newcastle at The Emirates on Monday evening. The Blues will hope to be two points ahead of the Gunners in fourth spot by then when they can hope that the Barcodes can pick up their first points in six matches.
Martinez will be forced into making changes to his starting XI, though, with both Sylvain Distin and Kevin Mirallas picking up injuries in Sunday's win over Manchester United. The Belgian has been ruled out for the remainder of the season and though Distin could receive similarly unwanted news, as things stand he is just sidelined for this weekend.
Phil Jagielka, recovering slowly from a hamstring injury of his own, won't be rushed back to face Southampton but has been pencilled in for next weekend's clash with City at Goodison Park. By default, that means that John Stones and Antolin Alcaraz will re-form the central defensive partnership that looked so solid in the second half against United in between the marauding fullbacks, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines.
In the attacking third, Mirallas' absence provides an opportunity for either Gerard Deulofeu or Aiden McGeady to impress in a starting role, either wide on the right in the Spaniard's case or on the left in the case of McGeady, with Romelu Lukaku and Steven Naismith possibly starting together up front or the Belgian striker supported instead by Ross Barkley, with Leon Osman sitting deeper as he did against Newcastle.
Though Pocchetino has made his side very difficult to beat, particularly at home, they do lack pace at the front now that Rodriguez is out and at the back where the Blues' pace could expose the likes of Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren if they can stretch the game out sufficiently in the final third.
Regardless of how Everton set up, they know that they need to treat this fixture like a cup final and engineer a win as a matter of priority. As they have shown over the last nine games, where they have taken an impressive 24 points from a possible 27, they have the talent and the attacking threat to do it. Now they just have to get the job done.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2013-14 Reports Index|
|Everton fans' reports|
|S Davis (90' Do Prado)|
|Gallagher (76' Ward-Prowse)|
|Lallana (86' Reed)|
|Subs not used|
|Baines (90' Garbutt)|
|Barkley (46' Osman Y: 63')|
|Deulofeu (58' McGeady)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|West Brom||1-0||West Ham|
|C Palace||0-2||Man City|
|14||West Ham United||37|
|15||West Bromwich Albion||36|