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.
Will appear here laterp>Phil Jagielka missed the game against Southampton with a hamstring injury, while Barry and Howard are suspended. Roberto Martinez was forced to make a number of changes, with Antolin Alcaraz finally getting his debut, half-way through the season, after he joined Everton form Wigan back in the summer. Leighton Baines also returns after his broken toe has finally healed. Naismith and Osman start with Joel Robles making his first league start also. Kevin Mirallas was on the bench, and Everton nemesis Mark Clattenburg officiating back at Goodison Park for the first time is six years.
It was a pretty slow and somewhat scrappy start for The Blues, until Barkley went on a trademark run through the middle, exchanged with Coleman and had the first hopeful shot on the Southampton goal. Alcaraz also showed some bright forward intent but Southampton were not quite ready to roll over.
Nothing much seemed to be happening until the ball was moved across to Coleman, who gets past Ward-Crowse, into the Southampton area, and he lashed another excellent goal home from a pretty narrow angle, high into the far top corner of the net. That's just what we like to see! Brilliant stuff from Seamus!
But Southampton were really making a game of it, with some very smart exchanges and lively movement that almost caught Everton out but for the intervention of Osman, sweeping up across the back.
Lukaku won the first corner, trying to get past Lovren, Baines swinging a good one to the far post but Davis plucked it out of the air. At the other end, Lallana looked to have played in Lambert with a clever backheel but it was adjudged to be offside (albeit marginally).
Lukaku was doing a lot more work up front, trying to both make and get some decent service but it just wasn't happening for the big Belgian, despite plenty of effort. More good play got Coleman free down the right again but he overplayed his final touch under pressure. Lukaku was then played in well but could not centre the ball for Oviedo in acres of space.
But Lallana did brilliantly to juggle the ball away from three Everton defenders only to drag his shot thankfully wide. Cork was next to have a poke for The Saints, well over. The game was very competitive, and Oviedo did well to win a free-kick wide left that Baines swung in very well but a Lovren got to it just ahead of McCarthy. A strange incident followed Distin clearing the ball into Lallana's face from close range just before the break.
Southampton were first to show after the break, Shaw running through and playing a dangerous ball in for Lallana to finish but for a crucial intervention from McCarthy. Everton were having trouble getting the ball under control against Southampton's high-tempo pressing game, that threatened to be more successful. Oviedo went in a little too hard on Chambers, yellow card.
Nervy moments at the back threatened to undo Everton as The Saints looked closer to scoring until good work by Oviedo and a great ball in to Barkley seemed goalbound but screwed just wide of the Southampton goal. Oviedo was replaced by Pienaar on the hour.
Cork was booked for a foul on Barkley, the Lallana got a right talking to for arguing with Clattenburg. Tremendous competition for the ball in midfield at times, with Southampton making things very difficult, and Everton unable to really generate any momentum in terms of passing. Lambert was booked for a silly little ball toss at McCarthy.
More really tentative stuff on a Saints corner, Robles, dropping the ball as Lallana pressed again, Everton looking uncomfortable at the back and if anything holding on to a very slender-looking lead as they just could not get a foothold in the game. The long-threatened equalizer finally came, Ramirez, lashing one in from distance, right through the arms of Robles and into the back of the Gwladys Street net. Mirallas replaced Osman with 20 mins left to recovery the lead.
But a sweeping move moments later Pienaar playing forward to McCarthy, the neatest of delicate first-time flicks into the path of Lukaku who smashed it home with glee. Lukaku tried to repeat the effort a couple more times without success.
Southampton were not giving up the fight, and kept Everton pinned back for long periods. A long ball up looked to have created a chance for Lukaku again but he could not beat Davis, and Baines lashed over off the corner, with 3 mins for the Blues to hang on as Southampton surged forward again. But the Blues hung on in the end for a very vital if slightly unconvincing win — fully understandable in the difficult circumstances!
Everton get a quick opportunity to bounce back from their nightmare against Sunderland with a second successive match in front of the Goodison faithful. With any pressure from their unbeaten home record in 2013 lifted by that Boxing Day defeat, the Blues can concentrate on getting back to winning ways, albeit with pressure of a different kind that came from wins for the two Manchester clubs on Saturday that moved City to the Premier League summit, seven points away, and brought United up to sixth, level with Everton on 34 points.
Roberto Martinez has made all the right noises following what was only his second defeat of the campaign, insisting that his players will learn from the experience and bounce back despite facing a difficult test against Mauricio Pochettino's Saints.
Southampton have fallen away somewhat from their excellent early-season form that made them a fixture in the top four, and recent injuries to Dani Osvaldo, Dejan Lovren, Artur Boruc and Victor Wanyama, combined with fixtures against the likes of Chelsea, City and Arsenal have seen them slip to ninth.
They remain a highly capable side that is tough to beat, though, and both Osvaldo and Lovren could return from their respectoive injuries. Either way, it's going to take a very good Everton performance to earn all three points.
Martinez will face selection problems of his own following Thursday's game, with Tim Howard starting a three-match ban following his red card against Sunderland and Gareth Barry suspended for one game after amassing five yellow cards. That assures that Joel Robles will make his first League start for Everton but the manager will need to tinker with his midfield and decide who to partner with James McCarthy in the centre of the park.
Ross Barkley could return to the starting XI after being rested for the first half on Thursday and, as was the case when McCarthy was suspended against Fulham, could be joined by Leon Osman in midfield, with the pair taking turns to play off Romelu Lukaku.
With Leighton Baines a possible starter for the first time since the end of November, Martinez could deploy Bryan Oviedo further forward on the flank and move Steven Pienaar inside into a more central role. Though he was forced to withdraw from the Sunderland defeat at half time due to illness, Kevin Mirallas is expected to be well enough to start.
A victory to match the one secured in this fixture last seasonfollowed by another three points at Stoke on Wednesday and the Boxing Day disaster won't seem nearly as bad. It would certainly be better than four draws over the Festive period and it would re-establish the team's momentum and the players' belief.
The danger is that the events against Sunderland have sowed seeds of doubt in the team's mindset but everything Martinez has done to date since becoming Everton manager suggests that that will not be allowed to happen. His seemingly limitless positivity should have the Blues up for it again and, hopefully – barring any hikinks from Mr Clattenburg, refereeing his first game at Goodison for six years – or excessive fatigue to the players they will bring 2013 to a close on a high.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2013-14 Reports Index|
|Chambers (Clyne 88')|
|Cork (Ramirez 66')|
|Ward-Prowse (Gallagher 84')|
|Subs not used|
|15||West Bromwich Albion||18|
|19||West Ham United||15|