There are many qualities that Champions League-level teams possess, none more crucial than the combination of real strength in depth of ability and single-minded drive and intensity to push on and earn all three points from awkward encounters such as Everton's trip to The Hawthorns this evening.
Financial constraints are an obvious impediment to Roberto Martinez being able to add genuine quality in every position in his squad – although he should have an indeterminate amount of cash burning a hole in his pocket this month following the sale of £40m worth of talent since late August – but if his Everton have shown anything so far this season it's that they can grind out victory even when not playing at their best. Not tonight, and it was a big opportunity missed to move back into the top four.
Martinez has lamented the cost to his team's potential points tally of some of those draws earlier in the season and he should be equally frustrated at coming away from this game with just a point... though not for the performance his players did produce and more for the one they didn't in the second half.
Having established the platform from which they could put this game to bed against a very ordinary West Brom side with Kevin Mirallas' well-taken goal four minutes before the break, the Blues proved incapable of moving into another gear when it mattered in the second half. Instead, they allowed the Baggies to grow in confidence as the match progressed and carve out an equaliser through, of all players, Diego Lugano with 15 minutes to go.
The Uruguayan defender atoned for his role in Mirallas' goal with a lunging header from which he powered home James Morrisson's cross. It was a goal that stirred the Blues from their torpor for a fairly meek late charge for a winner but that crucial second that would have propelled them back into the Champions League places never came, despite Sylvain Distin turning the ball into the net with the last kick of the game but from a clearly offside position.
Frankly, a victory would probably have flattered Everton and been rough justice on West Brom who did enough over the 90 minutes to reward new manager Pepe Mel with his first point. Whether it was the sub-standard pitch or a collective malaise, the Blues struggled to find their rhythm and, with the home side pressing the back four high up the field, there was less of the Martinez-inspired possession game that has become a feature of the campaign and a lot more long ball from the back than we're now used to.
Ironically, it was balls forward that created the game's first chance, one that Lukaku dropped well wide as he attempted to steer it over Ben Foster who was well off his goal line, and Mirallas' goal.
In between, Bryan Oviedo, playing instead of Steven Pienaar but in an unfamiliar role on the right side of midfield, flashed two decent efforts wide of Foster's left-hand post: the first, a volley after the ball came back in following a defensive clearance; the second a left-footed shot off Lukaku's cross.
More openings followed but James McCarthy's first-time, side-foot shot from Mirallas's cross was planted straight into the 'keeper's arms in the 17th minute before the Belgian ended a good run by cutting inside his man and also firing straight down Foster's throat. Then, Seamus Coleman tried to place a shot from the angle into the far corner of the goal but his effort was blocked and cleared.
While Everton looked the more likely side in what was a fairly niggly first half, the threat posed by Nicolas Anelka was always present but he was restricted to one wayward attempt to bend a shot around Tim Howard from the corner of the penalty area.
Having not really got their passing game going at all, it was hardly surprising that the Blues' goal came from a very direct approach. Distin launched a ball forward to Lukaku who rose above his marker and headed into the path of Mirallas. He accelerated in front of Lugano with ease and calmly slotted it inside Foster's near post.
If Martinez's half-time instructions had been to go for the jugular by scoring a decisive second, the message did not appear to have filtered through to the players, whose lethargy persisted after the break and allowed Mel to gain more of a foothold in the game with targeted substitutions.
The first of them was Victor Anichebe, and were it not for a smart, last-ditch challenge by Phil Jagielka, the former Everton striker might have leveled the game in the 55th minute, but his former teammate did enough to stifle his close-range shot and Howard smothered the loose ball.
Similar to the frustrating draw at Stoke on New Year's Day, the Blues just didn't seem able to keep the ball and exert the kind of control over the game that we have come to expect under Martinez. And yet they still fashioned a chance for Mirallas to volley a few yards wide from Coleman's cross before the same player dipped a direct free kick narrowly over the crossbar after he'd been blocked off by Lugano 20-odd yards from goal.
With Leon Osman looking increasingly laboured as the match wore on, Oviedo looking a little uncomfortable on the right flank and Leighton Baines curiously subdued on the other, Everton's performance was visibly lacking pep and imagination. And when Lukaku was dispossessed near the halfway line trying to take Howard's long throw in his stride, the Baggies powered into the gap that regularly seemed to open up in front of Baines in the second period to build a move down their right flank. Anichebe fed the ball on to Morrisson and he twisted his way past the attentions of both Baines and McCarthy to squeeze a cross to Lugano who did the rest with an unstoppable header.
It was a goal that you felt had been coming and Martinez responded, belatedly, with his first substitutions, the first forced on him by an ominous-looking injury to Coleman which saw John Stones come on to play at right back, and the second where he introduced Aiden McGeady for Oviedo.
Though the Irish international showed a couple of nice touches and some much-needed speed of thought there wasn't much end product as Everton went in search of a winner in the closing stages. A late free kick near the corner flag that Baines whipped into the mixer had the traveling fans' hearts ready to leap out of their chests when it dropped to Barry with clear sight of goal but when Distin, standing yards offside, diverted his low shot into the net, his "goal" was predictably ruled out.
With the need to secure three points at every opportunity so acute, this draw represents a massive disappointment... the kind of setback for which only a derby win at Anfield can atone, really! The hope, expectation and support is there but the Blues just fell a little flat when this tricky away game demanded so much more, particularly after they had gained the upper hand with the first goal.
In many ways, it was a display reminiscent of the previous regime and the manner in which Everton started to fall away from Champions League qualification this time last year when sufficient reinforcements failed to materialise in the January transfer window. Of course, sitting just a point off fourth and having been beaten just twice all season, it's far too premature to suggest that this campaign is heading the same way. It does represent a challenge for Martinez, though, in his first season in charge to not only motivate and inspire the players he currently has but to also inject the quality needed to keep this team in the hunt for the top four all the way to May. Otherwise 2013-14 will go down as another missed opportunity for Everton Football Club.
Everton begin a three-match spell on the road with a trip to The Hawthorns on Monday night to face West Bromwich Albion, with a newly shorn Romelu Lukaku returning to his old stamping ground of last season. Distin returns to the side in place of Stones after recovering from injury while Oviedo comes in in place of Pienaar who is presumably injured.
For West Brom, under new manager Pepe Mel, and having lost Shane Long to Hull City, Anelka starts despite supposed threats from sponsors(!) and with some threat of an FA ban fro racially motivated misconduct charge hanging over him, while former Everton graduate Victor Anichebe sits out the kick-off one the on the bench.
Everton wore their second strip of yellow and blue with the traveling contingent in fine voice but the early moves were from the home side trying to press in on the Everton goal. Distin had to resort to the long ball, trying to pick out Lukaku. In the next attack, a long ball over his shoulder was scooped goalwards and would have been something if it had come off.
But West Brom were keen to accelerate the pace and get things forward when they could, a good cross ball requiring a finger-tip diversions from Howard. This led to the first Everton corner at the other end that was oddly played, Baines winning a free-kick in the other side delivered well, coming out to Oviedo, who tried a first-time volley bouncing a couple of feet wide. Good work from Lukaku saw Oviedo then turn, make space but drag the ball just wide of the WBA post.
It was lively stuff, end-to-end, Oviedo trying to release Mirallas, then Anelka getting up and lashing one well wide as each side continued to sound eachother out. A great sequence ended with McCarthy curving a first-time shot, leaning back, into Foster's arms. Lukaku gave away a free-kick at the other end that had a whole set of head-tennis going down in the Everton area.
Everton were showing signs of ramping up their passing game, some great interchanges ending with Mirallas firing in a healthy shot at Foster. Another call went Everton's way in the middle of the park, but the Blues could not make much of it. WBA were firing up plenty of long balls that carried some threat but each seemed to be confidently countered by good defencive play, Jacob showing some frustration, standing on Ovideo's ankle.
A much more penetrative move seemed ssurely a goal, ast the ball pinged across the West Brom area, Coleman's shot blocked away when a goal would have resulted fro a firmer hit shot. But again, the ball was soon back in Everton's area, Anelka threatening as both sides upped the tempo, Mirallas running in and winning a corner.
Some scrappy stuff and late WBA tackles finally saw Micheal Oliver issue the first yellow card to Yacob, who had been fouling a lot. Another quick WBA attack cause more mild chaos in te Everton area without becoming dangerous as each side seemed to be cancelling eachother out without creating all that much.
Another Everton move was not quite as smooth as earlier, but suddenly, with nothing really on, DIstin played another long ball up to Lukaku, whose header seemed to come off the defender and fall nicely into the path of Mirallas. He followed up in determined fashion, brushing aside Lugano and finishing well past Foster, just inside the post, to put the Blues ahead. It had been hard work and a long time coming, but the Blues had finally scored, and it was a well, taken goal by the young Belgian.
The Blues smelt blood, and put together some more threatening moves before the break, while all WBA could do was a poor overhit corner. Some great football when Lukaku turned on the power but Lugano fought back to catch him when Lukaku thought he saw the whites of the goalposts looming.
Victor Anichebe replaced Vydra after the break, as Everton struggled to retain possession in the early exchanges. But Coleman did get forward, and a brilliant cross was just clipped away from Lukaku's head. However, that was a rarity as the Blues failed produce much cohesive play until around 53 mins. From that Everton attack, Anelka ran wide and crossed to Anichebe in a good position but Jagielka did very well to deny him clean contact, while Ridgewell was booked for a cynical tug on Coleman.
A lively move down the left saw Mirallas fire in a cross that won a corner but nothing came of it, as WBA made a second change on the hour mark. Coleman then picked out Mirallas who tried to do the acrobatic but his connection wasn't good enough. The home side continued to have the upperhand, questions being asked about Roberto's plan to regain the momentum... McGeady perhaps?
Mirallas picked up a good ball and took off, Lugano blocking him just outside the WBA area for a sweet-looking free-kick chance hat Mirallas curled just over the angle. As the increasingly uninspired stuff continued, Everton looked to stick stuck by their slender lead... but ultimately failed, a good cross, Lugano beating Distion to head in strong at the near post, and hard past Howard. Poor poor play had given the impetus to WBA, Roberto Martinez perhaps guilty of not doing something to change the game when it was clear from the break that the home side had the initiative.... and were now level.
Time for a match-changing substitution: Stones for Coleman....?!?! the one-way traffic continued in West Brom's favour. So next it was McGeady, on for Bryan Ovideo as West Brom swung in a corner..
Finally a period of Everton play inside the West Brom half, and increased pressure on the home goal — far too long in coming. But the urgency just didn't seem to be there, with 5 mins of the game left and 2 more vital points ebbing away.
Meanwhile Brunt crossed dangerously and it was amazing how it wasn't converted. McGeady had a lucky second chance to play in Lukaku but both his touches were horrible. Naismith replaced Osman as West Brom resumed their attacks and Everton resorted to more hopeful long balls. Mirallas gave away a soft kick into the last minute, Reid, planting it in Howard's arms.
Four minutes of added time and a really poor second half from Everton to reflect upon, as Naismith tried to beat Foster to a bouncing ball. Mirallas was finally booked by Oliver. Right at the end of added time, a free-kick for Mirallas, turned in by Barry through Lukaku, on the far post, but the big man clearly offside. just about summing up a very disappointing outcome.
Everton begin a three-match spell on the road with a trip to The Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion as the heat in Premier League's top six continues to rise following the weekend programme.
The Blues go into the game sitting below fifth place for the first time since late November but know that a win will see them jump back into the Champions League places ahead of the Anfield derby at the end of the month.
The consistent manner in which Everton's rivals for those coveted top-four spots have been winning away from home is a big reason why the leading three teams have started to open a small gap between themselves and the chasing pack and the battle for fourth has become so intense.
It's that pressure that will hopefully inspire the Blues under the positive guidance of Roberto Martinez as they go in search of their first win away from Goodison Park of 2014.
The manager has been boosted by the return to full training of Sylvain Distin in the past week and is likely to resume his partnership with Phil Jagielka. The Frenchman has been deputised superbly by first Antolin Alcaraz and then John Stones but with the Paraguayan rested with muscle fatigue, Distin's experience will probably trump the 19 year-old this time around.
Aiden McGeady is included in the squad for the first time following his arrival from Spartak Moscow and though he is short on match fitness, he will be hoping to perhaps play some part off the substitute's bench in the second half.
For their part, West Brom, who play their first game under new manager, Pepe Mel, will start the day just three points off the relegation zone in the tight environs of the bottom half. They began the year with a home win over Newcastle but that was their first victory in 10 matches and since New Year's day they have been dumped out of the FA Cup on their own ground by Crystal Palace and lost at Southampton.
Everton will be bringing Romelu Lukaku, shorn of his trademark dreadlocks, back to The Hawthorns for the first time since he signed off his time with the Baggies with a hat-trick against Manchester United on the final day of last season. The striker is enduring something of a lean spell in terms of goals with just one in his last eight games but his overall contribution to the Blues' attack remains pivotal.
With victory a must for Everton, Martinez will need his Belgian attacking duo of Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas on top form. Having dropped points against Sunderland and Stoke, the fine win over Norwich last weekend represented a return to winning ways in the League. Establishing momentum with three points away from home against a struggling team will be paramount.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2013-14 Reports Index|
|Everton fans' reports|
|WEST BROM (4-4-2)|
|Gera (Mulumbu 60')|
|Anelka (Berahino 75')|
|Vydra (Anichebe 46')|
|Subs not used|
|Coleman (Stones 79')|
|Oviedo (McGeady 80')|
|Osman (Naismith 88')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|C Palace||1-0||Stoke City|
|14||West Bromwich Albion||21|
|18||West Ham United||18|