If there were any suggestions that the level of expectation at Goodison Park has diminished since the frustration of the home game with Hull earlier this month, the smattering of boos that rang out with a couple of minutes to go of Everton's meeting with Queens Park Rangers served notice that for many they haven't.
The scoreline read 3-1 to the home team who were heading to their first Premier League victory since 22nd November. Nevertheless, one more backpass to Tim Howard was too much for a section of the faithful who had clearly been anticipating a demolition of Harry Redknapp's relegation-threatened side but had been put on edge by Bobby Zamora's 80th-minute consolation that opened the door, however narrowly, to a potential late scramble to preserve the points.
Though somewhat laughable given the imminence of three vital points, the reaction was another illustration of the raised expectations at Everton these days. A performance that had been elevated from its torpor over the first half hour by a slice of magic by Ross Barkley and then bolstered by a deflected Kevin Mirallas free kick and an inadvertant touch by Nedum Onuoha that will likely deprive Steven Naismith of a goalscoring return to the team had largely petered out just when a satisfying rout seemed on the cards.
It is true that long periods of this game were tedious to watch, weighed down by the pedestrian build-up play that has plagued the Blues in recent weeks as they have struggled to carry their impressive Europa League form over into the domestic arena. Though it doesn't explain a similarly unimaginative display at the Etihad Stadium last time out, the combination of a high-pressing game and compact shape that visiting teams are deploying at Goodison Park these days has clearly thrown a wrench in the wheels of the Roberto Martinez bandwagon and necessitated a good deal more patience than many are prepared to stomach.
Thankfully, Everton found a way to overcome QPR's efforts at containment, thanks in part to some favour from Lady Luck in the form of three deflections but also to the running of Steven Naismith, a bullish performance from Ross Barkley in a deeper-lying central midfield role and the tigerish, never-say-die attitude of Muhamed Besic who harried, nipped at and slid through everything that moved in a red jersey... and occasionally one wearing his own Blue as well. The Bosnian stamped his authority on this match with a dominant presence in the holding role and while he was occasionally hit-and-miss, he made sure that the hits were dealt cleanly on visiting players and his misses weren't damaging in terms of the odd stray pass.
Naismith's intelligent movement and incessant buzzing around opposition defences has been sorely missed over the past three weeks or so and his return made an expected difference to Everton's forward play. Playing off Romelu Lukaku in between Kevin Mirallas on the left flank and Aiden McGeady on the right, he provided balance to Martinez's attack and almost laid on the opening goal for the Belgian striker in what was really the only incident of note during a tentative and untidy first quarter of the contest.
A Barkley step-over and pass to Naismith that ended with a low shot at Robert Green, a blocked effort by the Scot after 26 minutes that seemed goalbound until it hit Richard Dunne and Mirallas' fizzing shot a foot over the bar offered signs that the Blues were starting to warm to the task despite the uneasiness that permeated a deathly-quiet Goodison crowd.
Enter Barkley, who started a move just inside his own half with a lovely turn past his man, played a one-two with Lukaku and then powered forward before lashing a shot into the top corner of the goal from 25 yards via a faint but, perhaps, crucial nick off Maurico Isla. From the deft shimmy, the visionary exchange of passes, the purposeful drive through the middle and the emphatic finish, it was Ross Barkley encapsulated.
1-0 became 2-0 shortly before the break when Joey Barton blotted what was an otherwise tepid display from a frequently hot-headed competitor by putting an elbow to Naismith's head, drawing a free kick that Mirallas and Leighton Baines conferred over. The Belgian whipped a right-footer aimed at one side of the goal but which ended up in the other with Green wrong-footed by a heavy deflection off Vargas on the end of the defensive wall.
Throughout the match, pace and direct running would provide the best moments for the Blues and two instances from Mirallas might have padded the score either side of half time. The erratic McGeady then almost put the cherry on the first half with a curling effort after being played in at the end of the Belgian forward's excellent run but it missed the far post by less than a foot. Then Mirallas chose to go it alone with a seemingly endless run that was terminated by a judicious lean by Dunne that, with the Everton man in full flight was almost always going to result in him going down. After a weekend of scrutinty of diving incidents, it was never going to result in a penalty and referee Neil Swarbrick surprised no one by turning away unmoved.
The third goal did come six minutes later, though, after McGeady got his quick feet sorted out to deceive his marker and clip an inviting cross to the back post for Naismith who nodded it back looking to find the far corner of the QPR goal. Green looked to have made a great one-handed save but the ball hit Onuoha and went in. One for the Dubious Goals Panel to ponder but an important goal that padded the Blues' lead and provided the platform for a goalfest that many in the crowd were craving.
It never came. Instead, Rangers enjoyed their best spell of the match and a crowd begging to be entertained were constantly let down by the ball regularly going backwards rather than forwards. Hoillett dragged a shot wide and Jordan Mutch side-footed over with a clear sight of goal from 18 yards but Howard was mostly untroubled in the Toffees' goal.
Meanwhile, McGeady was withdrawn for Steven Pienaar and Lukaku, who had spent most of the evening starved of any meaningful service and losing aerial battles with defenders more accomplished at heading than he, would soon follow as Samuel Eto'o came on with 13 minutes to go. QPR scored, though, before either player could really settle, although it came from an infuriating refereeing decision that underscored the poverty of the standard of officiating these days. Swarbrick appeared to give Everton the advantage at one end as Barkley was hacked down for the umpteenth time but then whistled immediately for an offside on Eto'o rather than bring the play back to give the home team a free kick. QPR played on with an incisive passing move that eventually ended with Mutch forcing a one-handed save from Howard that fell to the feet of Zamora who couldn't miss.
The goal ushered in an uncessarily nervy last 10 minutes, although it was the Blues who came closest to adding to the scoreline. Coleman hammerd a first-time shot that Green parried away and, after Mirallas had been stretchered off in agony following a bad challenge by Mutch, Eto'o rolled a shot off the post and Barkley almost played substitute Arouna Kone in for his first goal but it was just too far in front of him to make contact.
Three vital points, then, at an equally important juncture of the season, with Everton in danger of losing more ground on the pack of clubs jostling for the European places. Whether the victory and the margin of it is enough to inject some confidence, urgency and tempo into Martinez's side will be revealed at the St Mary's at the weekend when the Blues take on a Southampton side whose brilliant early season form has unravelled in the face of four consecutive defeats.
Martinez refused to acknowledge the frustration in the crowd during the first half hour an audible expression of dissatisfaction from paying customers that is simultaneously counter-productive when quizzed about it after the match but there is an unmistakable pressure to entertain and win against the so-called lesser sides in the division. While Everton are readjusting to the counter-measures being employed by visiting managers to the expansive style that won the Blues so many admirers last season, it may be that victories away from home will be the quicker route to a less demanding atmosphere on home soil.
Mirallas will likely be an early doubt for the weekend, but with Naismith back and the possibility of John Stones and James McCarthy to follow, things feel like they're getting back to normal in the side and, hopefully, the results will start to come as a result. A run of wins between now and New Year's Day could vault us back into top-six contention and put a very different spin on what has been a stop-start Premier League campaign.
With nine days' rest and no Europa League hangover to disrupt preparations, Everton have another chance to restart their sputtering Premier League campaign with a fixture against Queens Park Rangers in the Monday night game at Goodison Park.
Like the Blues' previous visitors, Hull City, Harry Redknapp's Rangers come to Merseyside sitting in the relegation zone and – "Everton's Law" klaxon – as the only team in the top flight yet to record an away point so far this season. The ideal opposition, you would think, for Roberto Martinez's side to get back to winning ways after the frustrations of the 1-1 draw against the Tigers and the narorow defeat at Manchester City, Andre Marriner and all.
Both Everton peforrmances were laden with ponderous build-up play and a worrying lack of tempo and attacking punch. Having given the majority of his first team the evening off for the dead rubber against Krasnodar on Thursday evening, the hope is that Martinez's regular senior players will come into this one refreshed and inspired.
They will need to be, because while the Blues have been dropping important points – 10 from the last 15 available have been spurned – the teams above them have been pulling away in ominous fashion. Having less than half of the League leaders' points tally before Çhristmas is galling enough but the top four is 10 points away; we're eight short of the minimum Europa League slot currently occupied by Southampton on goal difference from Arsenal.
How close to the manager's first-choice XI he will be able to field remains to be seen. Martinez has walked back some of his comments regarding John Stones since suggesting on Friday that he could be in contention for the visit of QPR. He has since revised his prediction for the 20 year-old's return, suggesting that next weekend's trip to Southampton is more likely.
Stones has only just recovered from surgery to repair the ankle ligaments he damaged at the beginning of October so some patience in bringing him back into the side is prudent. Both James McCarthy and Steven Naismith have been subject to just such pragmatism in recent matches as they work through their respective hamstring issues and both will be undergo assessments prior to the game to see if they can play a part.
Both players' energy has been missed over the last three weeks – Naismith's movement and running has been the grease in Everton's attacking machine for much of the past year while McCarthy's tenacity and ceaseless workrate makes him invaluable sitting as protection in front of the back four.
Of the players that started against Krasnodar, only Antolin Alcaraz is likely to be in the team from the start this time. Tim Howard, Seamus Coleman, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines are all likely to return to the back line, while Muhamed Besic is set to slot back into central midfield. Due to Gareth Barry's one-game ban, it will either be alongside someone McCarthy or a deputy like Leon Osman who performed well in a more defensive midfield role when called upon recently.
Further forward, with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas almost certain to start and Christian Atsu out with a hamstring injury, it's case of perming two from Samuel Eto'o, Ross Barkley, Aiden McGeady, Naismith and Steven Pienaar.
QPR, for their part, will also be missing a key player through suspension with top scorer, Charlie Austing serving a ban. Since Everton tightened up at the back, they now have the joint-worst defensive record in the division with Leicester City as well, so if the Blues have any pretensions about qualifying for Europa via the League this season, there will be no excuses if come Monday evening they haven't booked three points ahead of the trip to Southampton next weekend.
A win would put Everton back into the top half of the table at the expense of Liverpool and back to within three points of the top seven which should be the first target as Martinez looks to put a run of results together over the busy period between now and the end of the year.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|McGeady (Pirenaar 73')|
|Mirallas (Kone 90')|
|Lukaku (Eto'o 77')|
|Subs not used|
|Phillips (Zamora 59')|
|Fer (Kranjcar 77')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|C Palace||1-1||Stoke City|
|West Brom||1-0||Aston Villa|
|4||West Ham United||28|
|14||West Bromwich Albion||17|
|18||Queens Park Rangers||14|