Evertonians have been a little perplexed at the disappearance of the swaggering outfit that played its way to fifth place in the Premier League last year on the back of some brilliantly orchestrated performances against some of the top sides. In the midsts of a torrid run of winter results that sent Everton into freefall towards the relegation places, handsome wins like those over Arsenal and Manchester United at Goodison Park in Roberto Martinez's first season seemed a world away.
This season may be over in terms of trophies and Europe but, with their appetite for salvaging some pride over the run-in clearly intact, the Blues evoked a little of that 2013-14 spirit with another comprehensive victory over Manchester United. It was their fourth in a row at home and their third successive win over United at Goodison, and while it comes regretfully late in terms of a disappointing campaign, it offers hope that the manager can rediscover the formula that had fans lauding his appointment.
Louis van Gaal's tenure at Old Trafford may have started in a very Moyesian vein but the Dutchman has steadily got to grips with life in the Premier League over the last few months. There were times when it felt as though United should almost be embarrassed by their place in the top-four given how ordinary they have been for much of the season but there is no question they came into the his match with the air of returning Champions League qualifiers. By the full-time whistle, the shell-shocked Van Gaal was facing a post-mortem of his team's second successive defeat and his club's biggest reverse against Everton since the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1992.
Martinez played him and his charges like a fiddle in the Merseyside sunshine today. Ceding 75% of the possession to the visitors, the Catalan set his side up to defend tigerishly as a unit, collapse the space on United in the defensive third and then exploit the space behind by hitting them on the counter-attack. It was a strategy that stopped cold United's rapid start to the contest, one that bore the hallmarks of a local derby in the opening minutes, with a magnificent sucker punch in just the fifth minute.
Mindful of United's attacking threat, Martinez had elected to start the more defensive-minded Leon Osman instead of Kevin Mirallas, but as Antonio Valencia raced away from the veteran in the fourth minute and Leighton Baines was forced into a sliding challenge to stop the wingback's cross, you wondered if the Everton were going to be in for a long afternoon.
From that corner, however, Romelu Lukaku out-muscled Valencia and knocked Gareth Barry's initial clearance to James McCarthy. With his manager's instructions to get foward more no doubt ringing in his ears, the Irishman set Seamus Coleman away down the right with a pass and continued his bursting run to collect the ball as it deflected into his path off Paddy McNair. With McNair and Daley Blind falling back in retreat, McCarthy charged between them and managed to keep his feet and his composure to tuck the ball under David de Gea's leg.
By the time John Stones had doubled the lead with his first goal for Everton, a superb glancing header off a corner with 10 minutes left in the half, Van Gaal's side were betraying a frustration and futility in their play exemplified by Marouane Fellaini.
Making his first appearance in a red jersey at Goodison since leaving 18 months ago, the Belgian blazed a chance to equalise almost immediately over the crossbar and was booked for the second of two poor tackles when he hacked Ross Barkley down unceremoniously on front of referee Andre Marriner. When the teams emerged for the second half, his manager had decided not to leave him out on the tightrope any longer, opting for the potential of more firepower in the form of Radamel Falcao.
As it turned out, the Colombian was able to make little impact beyond a looping header after fellow substitute Angel di Maria had sprung the offside trap with a ball over the top but Tim Howard was alive to it and caught it under his crossbar. It was the third save required of the American who had an excellent display against his old club by charging off his line to deny Luke Shaw in the first half and then Wayne Rooney in similar fashion early in the second.
For all the visitors' possession, however, they carved out few clear-cut chances and often Everton's problems were of their own making with occasional stray passes out of defence and midfield creating needless extra pressure. With Phil Jagielka and John Stones otherwise in imperious form and Barry and McCarthy in particular brilliant at stifling the opposition any time they got near the area, United were never given an avenue back into the game.
And when the Blues picked their moments to surge forward, they intermittently threatened to extend their lead. Lukaku, who had fired too close to De Gea in the first half, showed great feet in the 57th minute to glide away from Valencia in the box but there was no one the centre to convert his cross as it fizzed across the face of goal. Barkley then sent a tame shot into the goalkeeper's arms and Coleman's attempt to find Lukaku from the byline was cut out by Smalling.
It was the timely introduction of Kevin Mirallas for Osman with a little of a quarter of an hour to go that allowed Everton to kill the game, though. The Belgian forward had only been on the field five minutes when Lukaku, aware he was in an offside position, slowed up from chasing Barkley's chipped ball over the defence allowing Mirallas to capitalise as the United defenders hesitated. He ran on to a one-on-one dual with De Gea, deceived him by shaping to shoot for the far corner and then stroked it into the other side of the goal.
With the Red Devils a beaten side, Mirallas almost put the cherry on the cake with a teriffic shot from 20-plus yards but the goalkeeper made an excellent stop to palm it over the bar.
No wins against any of the top six before today told its own story of how far the Blues have fallen this term but this was a wonderful reminder of just how good the Blues can be under Martinez. It's too little too late for this season but, as a welcome act of partial redemption, it offered a sign that the manager has re-energised the dressing room and hasn't lost the ability to execute a perfect gameplan.
The first half was evocative of that first home game against Arsenal back in August, but eight months on, measurably wiser and a good deal fitter, this time the Blues finished the job in the way we all expected they would in what back then ended up being another damaging 2-2 draw.
The key now is to buy the kind of quality that can find a way past even the most entrenched of parked buses, to carry this re-found consistency into next season, and to ensure that this kind of performance is repeated against the rest of those clubs who will finish in the top five places this term.
Only then will we know if Roberto has his mojo back for good.
Romelu Lukaku and Leon Osman come into the side in place of Arouna Kone and Kevin Mirallas as the two changes from the team that started against Burnley last weekend.
There was a minute's silence for Goodison Park to pay tribute to Everton Life President and former chairman Sir Philip Carter, who died on Thursday.
The Blues got off to a great start when a quick counter sw McCarty play a great pass out to Coleman, his return was not so great but came back off a defender and into the path of McCarthy who drove through two defenders and stumbled as he took his shot which bet De Gea's extended leg and into the corner of the Park End net after five minutes.
Fellaini has missed a glorious chance to immediately equalise after being presented with the ball on the edge of the area after what looked like a foul on Barry, only for the Belgium to fire high over the bar with just Howard to beat. His name then went into referee Marriner's book for foul on Barkley.
Everton were forced onto the back foot after the goal, but repelled a swath of Man Utd attacks until a series of corners were won, and on the third, Stones directed a brilliant header past De Gea to put Everton in an excellent position before the break.
Fellaini, who had been very effectively man-marked by Barry, was sacrificed after getting booked early on, Falcao replacing him for the second half. Howard had to be alert on an early corner and came out block Rooney's shot. Everton looked to break but the ball was played too far ahead of Barkley giving Shaw a chance to block him and get smacked in the face as they collided.
Barkley picked out Lukaku with a great forward ball but the chance was gone in an instant with a dreadful first touch from the big man. In defence, McCarthy was a rock, putting himself in the path of seemingly every Man Utd attack as the resolute Everton defending sought to deny the visitors anything from the game.
Lukaku got behind the Reds defence brilliantly and looked up to pick out Lennon but his cross was too hard and too far in front of the Spurs loan player. At the back, the pattern of the game continued, with Stones coming across to stop Shaw connecting.
Everton were playing with great confidence and smothering the efforts of Van Gaal's charges in all parts of the field. Their frustration summed up when Young tried to gaet around Lennon who clever blocked him with hios body to then win the foul. Shaw then pulled Lennon back cynically and was booked.
Osman and Coleman combined well on the right and they almost played in Lukaku, winning a corner that was defended away. Osman came off to a good round of applause, replaced by Kevin Mirallas.
Lukaku was offside for a clever ball over the top but he stopped as the ball bounced near him and ran on to Mirallas who had overlapped well, timing his run to gather the ball and slot past De Gea for a very convincing third goal to stun the Red Devils and the media hype that surrounds them.
Mirallas went on a nice cross run and fired off a fine shot that forced an equally fine save from De Gea into the last 5 mins.
Lukaku and Barkley went off near the end, to be replaced by Kone and Naismith, as Rooney also went off after a poor game where his old side had frustrated him.
A truly tremendous display of determination and conviction as the team continues to recover from an absolutely dreadful spell of form mid-season, and Martinez's charges finally put in a performance worthy of the Goodison faithful who had packed the Old Lady for another full house.
Everton's season may effectively be over bar the possibility of sneaking into 8th place over the last five matches but Roberto Martinez's side could yet have an important say in both the European and relegation pictures between now and the end of the season.
This Sunday the Blues entertain Manchester United who looks odds-on to finish in the top four and who will come to Goodison Park looking for the win that would virtually guarantee it. Three points at the Blues' expense would also give them a leg up on local rivals Manchester City in the battle to finish in one of the places that guarantees automatic entry to the group stage.
Everton, meanwhile, can record a third successive home win over United for the first time since their title-winning season of 1986-87 and, if results go their way elsewhere, move back into the top 10 after five months in the wrong half of the table.
The stakes aren't quite as high as a year ago when fourth place was still a possibility and the return of David Moyes gave extra spice to the occasion but the visit of a big team on a good run also offers extra incentive to raise the performance.
Having missed the two of the last three games and come on as a substitute in last weekend's win over Burnley, Romelu Lukaku is expected to return to the starting line-up, possibly alongside the mis-firing Arouna Kone although Martinez may elect to retain the two-wingers formation that he used against the Clarets and keep Kevin Mirallas in the team.
Steven Pienaar is a major doubt as his injury frustrations continue while James McCarthy will be assessed over the final two training sessions to see if he has recovered from the ankle injury he picked up at the end of last Saturday's game. Leon Osman will also undergo a late fitness test after missing out against Burnley with a groin strain but could make the squad.
Louis van Gaal will be without Michael Carrick, Marcus Rojo and Rafael while Daley Blind could return after recovering from an ankle injury but ex-Everton players Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney in the side will add an extra dimension to a game that will hopefully be more than the standard end-of-season fare.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|MAN UNITED (4-4-2)|
|Mata (Di Maria 63')|
|Fellaini (Falcao 45')|
|Rooney (Van Persie 88')|
|Subs not used|
|11||West Ham United||44|
|13||West Bromwich Albion||37|
|19||Queens Park Rangers||27|