Everton's Champions League flame is still flickering after their eighth home win on the bounce in all competitions but at a time of the campaign when they need to be kicking into high gear, this was arguably a case of winning despite not performing at your best.
One of the key frustrations of Roberto Martinez's first season in charge has been his team's inability to press home their superiority in some matches and score the goals needed to earn the points their displays have often deserved; today, they ceded their usual dominance of the ball – as much through their opponents' will and tenacity as their own raggedness in possession – but capitalised on their best spell in the game to build a two-goal cushion that would prove crucial in the final reckoning.
Swansea, meanwhile, produced a performance that belied their position hovering dangerously above the relegation zone and left Goodison Park as one of the few teams to have outplayed Everton on their own turf this season. They also left Merseyside with another defeat, thwarted by a combination of Tim Howard and timid finishing, while the Blues moved into fifth place, their European hopes enhanced with their third consective victory in the League.
Gary Monk has inherited the now-established tradition of passing and possession football instilled in Swansea City by Martinez when he was manager of the South Wales side and, as was the case even with an under-strength side in the FA Cup last month, they came to Goodison determined to dominate the ball.
The half-time statistics would underscore their success in effectively beating Everton at the same game in the first 45 minutes as they enjoyed 58% of the possession, out-shot their hosts 10 to two and restricted the Blues to just one shot on target.
That solitary effort, a 20th-minute penalty by Leighton Baines, was crucial, though, and it should have been the launchpad for a comfortable home victory. Even at 3-1, though, the Blues were never truly at ease, with the Swans able to bear down on the back four far too often for comfort over the course of the 90 minutes.
Again, the Welsh side deserved credit for their industry and their refusal to be overawed by superior opposition but Everton were often the architects of their own problems. As early as the first minute, a slack pass by James McCarthy handed Wilfried Bony an early chance but, thankfully, he fired wide and Swansea's pressure on the Blues' back line had the home faithful fearing further self-inflicted trouble as the game wore on.
Once they had settled into something of a rhythm, however, Everton looked quite useful going forward, particularly with Ross Barkley looking lively at times in the central role behind Romelu Lukaku and Aiden McGeady offering trickery and a willingness to take his man on on the flanks.
And things clicked nicely in the eighth minute when Seamus Coleman received a neat return ball from Lukaku and centred invitingly for Barkley but the young midfielder miscued in front of goal and his effort sliced away towards the corner flag.
Barkley atoned for the miss 11 minutes later, though, when he raced into space to collect John Stones' raking ball forward, surged towards the penalty box and, with a clever step-over, drew a clumsy foul from Chico Flores. Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot and Leighton Baines calmly converted what was only Everton's second penalty in the League this season to make it 1-0.
Swansea weren't unduly ruffled, though, and they responded by upping the pressure on Everton a little. Angel Rangel sneaked in behind Gareth Barry to collect Pablo Hernandez's pass and cross low to the Everton six-yard box but Jose Canas volleyed Stones' attempted clearance well wide from a central position.
It would prove to be a signal of intent, though, because six minutes later, the Swans were level. Wayne Routledge picked Rangel out superbly in acres of space with a diagonal ball over the top of the Blues' defence and the Catalan took one touch before laying it on a plate for Bony in front of goal from where he couldn't miss.
Monk's side remained in the driving seat for the remainder of the half and might have gone into the interval a goal up had Hernandez had more fortune with a 44th-minute free kick that took a heavy deflection off McCarthy's shoulder and flashed narrowly wide of Howard's right-hand post.
An awful Stones errort aside, where he gifted the ball straight to Routledge but recovered well to close the door on Hernandez, Everton started the second half in much better fashion and by the hour mark had put themselves into what would prove to be an unassailable position.
Lukaku's daisy-cutter and a close-range shot by Distin following a corner, where the defender would surely have scored had he been able to steer it anywhere but straight at Michel Vorm, led the way before the Blues' steadily increasing pressure told.
Lukaku collected McGeady's pass down the channel, kept the ball after almost giving it away, fed it wide to Mirallas and was then on hand in the six-yard box to slide in and stab it emphatically past Vorm to restore the Blues' lead.
Five minutes later, it was 3-1. Bony headed Mirallas' first corner behind but no player in white could get a header on the follow-up set-piece and when it fell to Barkley four yards out, he only had to get a head on it to score his first League goal since his stunning free kick in the reverse fixture against Swansea in December.
Despite their now extended lead, Everton never really looked comfortable, though, their cause not helped by a mystifying inability to keep the ball. Indeed, it was a confoundingly ragged display by Martinez's men in general and had Howard not been at his best or had the visitors been more clinical with their own finishing, they might have stolen at least a point.
Almost all the ingredients for a more typically fluid and tidy Everton display were there but they struggled consistently to keep hold of the ball, finishing the contest having ceded almost 60% of the possession. With McGeady more of a head-down-and-take-the-man-on type of player, there were few interchanges with Baines down the left, Coleman was similarly subdued down the right, which often left the Blues at the mercy of the decision-making or lay-offs of the Belgian duo, Mirallas and Lukaku, which were often off-key.
That meant Swansea saw plenty of the ball and the opportunity to do something usefu with it. Bony popped up completely unmarked in the 63rd minute but was foiled by a nice one-handed save by Howard and the American made another low stop to deny Hernandez after he had wriggled his way past Coleman. Then, Distin got a crucial block on Michu's shot that sent it over the crossbar following an ill-advised throw-out to Mirallas by Howard.
In between, Mirallas himself could have sealed the game when he robbed Davies in the centre circle and raced away towards the Swansea box with no one to beat but the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, he tried to be too cute with the finish when he probably should have gone for power or lower placement and Vorm grabbed it out of the air.
Swansea would have two more good chances before Ashley Williams eventually powered home a stoppage-time header to make it 3-2, the better of which was served up to Hernandez by Jonjo Shelvey who picked him out in oceans of space near the penalty spot but he shot straight at Howard who beat the effort away. Michu would head the other opportunity over from another flighted pass by Shelvey as the Blues' survived.
As Martinez remarked after the match, "You're not going to be able to win fantastically well in every game but you always need to find the margins to win matches," and that was a fair summation of Everton's afternoon. They did find the fine margin to grind out another three vital points to keep a step ahead of Manchester United, put pressure on Spurs and close the gap between themselves and Arsenal in fourth place to eight points.
The concern is, though, they visibly weren't at the top of their game, a theme that has run through their last four games, and they will need to be a lot sharper and a lot more selfish with the ball in the two upcoming trips to Newcastle and Fulham if they are to extend this winning streak to four and then five games.
The Champions League remains a slender hope this season but those next to fixtures will speak volumes for whether or not the Blues can achieve it; take all six points on offer before the Gunners come to town on 6th April and things really could get very interesting indeed. Short of that, 5th place feels like it is Everton's to lose and that would be a very handsome achievement in Roberto's first season in charge.
The starting line-up featured Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, with Osman, Deulofeu and Naismith on the bench where Antolin Alcaraz reappeared. Pienaar and Jagielka were both out injured.
Swansea started brightly, Bony getting off a couple of early potshots, as Everton seemed a little lackadaisical in their early passing, McGeady was the first to get forward for the Blues but his cross was too close to Vorm. Coleman was next on the other side and he fed a perfect ballfor Barkley who poorly miskicked at it when the net should have been riipppling. Really poor from the young star.
Then it was Mirallas, who benefitted from great work by McGeady, only to fire a horrible wayward cross well past the danger area. Everton tried to implement the passing game but poor midfield passing choices were letting them down until Lukaku and McGeady linked to win the first corner by Mirallas, defended away.
Again, Everton's possession play wass stymied at the half-way line, with apparently no opportunities to make worthwhile forward plays, and it was already becoming rather frustrating to watch. But Stones did spot Barkley and played a good ball to him, Barkley being fouled as he entered th area... Penalty! (Only the second of the season!) Superbly executed by Leighton Baines.
Lukaku was showing signs of injury as Swansea pushed back hard, pressing a rather nervy Everton defence, while the Blues' forward passing was at times anything but crisp as Everton repeatedly lost possession at crucial moments in the build-up play. Rangel got past Baines but Canas's mishit was shocking, although it won Swansea a corner.
But a simple move by Swansea , perfectly executed tore through the Everton defence, Routledge's superb cross-ball picking out Rangel we centered low first time and Bony could not miss. The worst thing was, it was definitely coming... as if the gifted penalty had allowed Everton to sit back on their laruels.
Stones conceded a corner with a poor backheel as Everton really struggled to regain the upper hand with Routledge continuing. Fortunately, Swansea 's shooting was well off target, but the players in Blue were well rattled, and the crowd rather displeased as they watched the visitors play Martinez ticka-tacka around them.
Baines gave away a soft foul on Dyer in a rather dangerous position, 3 yards outside the Everton area that was horribly deflected off McGeady's shoulder and just past the far post. Two more corners for Swansea , a poor clearance by Coleman and two more corners meant the pressure on the Gwladys St goal was right up to the half-time whistle. Worryingly poor stuff.
No changes at half-time despite some really poor play from Everton, underlined by a dreadful layoff from Lukaku soon after the restart that had the crowd howling. Barkley then failed to play in Baines, and Stones overhit his pass out of play. Just such poor quality passing repeatedly letting down the side. Stones needed to recover to put off Rangel after he was almost beaten before Lukaku finally takes a shot on goal, scuffed poorly from distance.
Some better play won a corner that was headed on by Lukaku but with no direction, then the ball fell to Distin who could only fire straight at Vorm. Lukaku was then dispossessed too easily running forward as Swansea felt they were doing a fine job of disrupting the Blues passing game. Lukaku was running better but trod on the ball, yet he persevered, playing it out to Mirallas for a return ball that the big Belgian lunged for and tucked home.
McGeady was warming to the task, winning a corner well as the Blues finally pressed and, on the second attempt, Barkley had no-one to stop him stooping down to head home form close range.
But Swansea were not giving up without a fight, Bony getting a chance to power a header past Howard but for a tremendous one-handed save as the American palmed the ball away. But McCarthy did not help things with a needless backpass to give away a corner. But that released Mirallas, he galloped away but tried to be too cute with a chip shot when it needed a firm strike to beat Vorm.
Swansea kept coming back again and again, Distin lucky when an overhead kick caught his dangling arm, but probably not a penalty. McGeady was doing more and more impressive stuff, but could not keep a shot from distance low enough. Everton's play was still suffering from some really poor layoffs by Lukaku, whose passing was shockingly poor at times.
At times, the ball just would not run for he Blues as Swansea threatened to run through then with each dangerous attack. Somehow, Hernandez was denied at close range by a very alert Howard in the Everton goal, although either side of him and it would have been in.
Osman and Naismith replaced McGeady and Barkley, with a few minutes left, but Osman's "clever feet" let him down again, as Everton were unable to maintain a sweeping move across the field, his flick going straight to a Swansea defender. < /p>
Swansea pulled one back in added time, Williams heading in a corner as Deulofeu replaced Lukaku, and Everton held on for a very important, if a little undeserved three points.
Everton are back at Goodison Park this weekend to face the second of the two teams from South Wales as Swansea City come to town for the second time this season. It's the first of three matches in the space of eight days for the Blues as they look to keep their slim Champions League hopes alive by putting as many points on the board as possible.
Having despatched Cardiff with a very late goal last Saturday, Roberto Martinez's side will be hoping to engineer a third victory over the Swans and record back-to-back wins in the Premier League for the first time since December. Coincidentally, the victims on that occasion, exactly three months ago, were Swansea as Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley conjured up a pair of stunning goals that had kept the Blues within two points of the top of the table.
Things have stretched out considerably in the top seven since, with Everton starting the weekend 9 points off fourth place but having played a game fewer than Manchester City, the current occupants of that last Champions League-qualifying spot. Realisitically, with Manchester United struggling for consistency and Tottenham Hotspur in a similiar situation, fifth place is probably as high as Martinez's men can finish this season and with it would come the Europa League, the extra revenue from a higher-placed finish than least season, and the consolatation of ending the campaign as "best of the rest."
It would certainly be an impressive achievement given the managerial transition last summer and some lengthy injury layoffs to key players, particularly since the last time these two clubs met in the League. Most of those concerns have cleared up but captain Phil Jagielka is still a doubt and Steven Pienaar, who missed last weekend's game, has been ruled out for a further two to three weeks with a knee complaint.
With two away trips on the immediate horizon – to St James' Park on Tuesday and then Fulham the following Sunday – It's unlikely Jagielka will be risked this weekend. That would mean another start for John Stones alongside Sylvain Distin after another virtually error-free outing against Cardiff last time out.
Up front, Romelu Lukaku should start and with Gareth Barry and James McCarthy likely to pair up again in defensive midfield, Martinez will have the usual task of perming two from Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu, Aiden McGeady, Leon Osman, Ross Barkley and Steven Naismith for the remaining spots.
Mirallas and Deulofeu started last weekend and the Spaniard scored the Blues' first which should be enough to earn him another place in the starting XI but it would not be surprising to see McGeady preferred to Mirallas on the left with Barkley and Osman deployed more centrally.
Swansea showed in the FA Cup tie here in February that, even with an under-strength team, they could cause Everton problems. They were one of the few teams to have kept the Blues close to 50-50 possession on the day and they were perhaps unfortunate to lose 3-1, having frustrated their hosts for long periods.
They haven't won a match in any competition since 8th February, though, and though they ran Liverpool very close at Anfield a month ago in a thrilling 4-3 defeat, they lost at home to fellow relegation battlers West Bromwich Albion, a result which leaves them just four points above the drop zone.
Given that form and the fact that, with the exception of the aberration against Sunderland on Boxing Day, Everton have won every home game since the Merseyside derby in November, this should represent an opportunity to comfortably book another three points.
As ever, the key will be fashioning enough clear-cut openings and sticking the ball in the back of the net. Martinez had ear-marked the final 10 games of the campaign as his team's time to shine; now they have to live up to their manager's promise.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2013-14 Reports Index|
|McGeady (Osman 85'')|
|Barkley (Naismith 84')|
|Lukaku (Deulofeu 90'+3)|
|Subs not used|
|Cañas (De Guzman 69')|
|Dyer (Shelvey 63')|
|Bony (Michu 70')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Hull City||2-0||West Brom|
|West Ham||0-2||Man United|
|Aston Villa||1-4||Stoke City|
|14||West Ham United||31|
|16||West Bromwich Albion||28|