Everton faced one of the more important matches of Roberto Martinez's reign as they take on Stoke City in freezing rain and a packed Boxing Day crowd, needing to produce a performance and a result that would re-establish their diminishing top-four credentials. Kevin Mirallas, James McCarthy and John Stones all return, with Distin dropped to the bench, but no sign of Besic.
Everton started with some much-wanted spirit in the Boxing Day bear-pit that was a Goodison Park, looking for a big reaction from the home side to the dismal loss at Southampton last weekend. Mirallas tried to play for a penalty after Lee Mason had waved play on when Mirallas had his shirt pulled, but no yellow card for the Stoke perpetrator.
The game was stopped for a few minutes as Lukaku and Shawcross suffered a nasty clash of heads. Somehow, Stoke squandered a glorious chance after Stones was taken out with an awful sliding tackle where Whelan was deemed to be fair and he got the ball forward for a two-on-one, pushing it a little too wide to Diouf with Jagielka in well to block what looked to be a certain goal. Stones needed treatment on his just-healed ankle, but thankfully was soon up and playing again as Stoke pressed and could have scored with a header. Barkley was next in the wars, with a bloody nose requiring treatment.
A long session of pissing about at the back ended when Whelan again left his foot in on Jagielka and got only a talking to from Lee Mason. Stoke pressed again, with Jagielka crashing into a few players on a high ball and going down awkwardly for yet another session of injury treatment. Diouf almost got behind the Blue line but was called offside, and Everton from the free-kick went up to win their first corner that was cleared away. Lukaku looked to release Mirallas but the Belgian failed to pout in a decent cross from the opportunity.
Next it was a Stoke player down and needing treatment after going in on Barry but it was Naismith who picked up the first yellow card for taking out Bojan. Naismith was then pulled back, getting a free-kick that saw a great shot from Mirallas deflected just wide. From the corner, Barry missed a complete sitter at the far post, choosing to put the ball back in the melee with the goal gapping.
Walters should have walked for a blatant pull back on Baines as the last man, but Mason only gave a yellow and then awarded a soft penalty for minimal contact by McCarthy on Bojan, who converted with ease into the corner of the goal to underline a stunning series of injustices. McCarthy was utterly incensed, convinced Bojan had dived, and there was more afters as he continued to make his point to the cheating Stoke player.
With TEN added minutes of injury time, Everton won a corner when Begovic fumbled the ball out over the byeline, and Naismith saw his header cleared off the line. It was helter-skelter stuff, Coleman bizarrely stuttering and playing an awful ball across the area, Barry finally firing in but with no real threat.
Stoke then played the possession game, winning a corner in the process as Everton seemed exhausted, Stoke putting together a few worthwhile attacks. It had been a horrible half of anti-football, refereed poorly by Lee Mason, and certainly not what the freezing Boxing Day crowd wanted to see, with Everton players fearful of turning, playing a forward ball, or taking a shot until Naismith set up Mirallas with just Begovic to beat but he scuffed his shot into the side netting to underline the dire state of proceedings, Howard hobbling off, also injured.
When the game finally resumed, it was with Robles in goal and Alcaraz on for Jagielka, the physical scrap in the freezing rain continuing as Stoke set out to frustrate Everton's possession game.
Stones did very well to deny Diouf but looked to have perhaps reinjured his weak(?) ankle as he hobbled around. Everton won their 6th corner, that almost got through to Naismith. A repeat corner was deeper but Alcaraz could only head over. Lukaku then fired straight at Begovic, and later Baines was also denied by the Stoke 'keeper.
Stoke were containing Everton and thwarting their passing game with close marking. Martinez made his final substitution for the last 20 minutes, Eto'o on for McCarthy. But Eto'o's initial touches were poor, leading to Adams going in on Barkley, but only getting a belated finger-wag from Mason. Things were just not working for Everton, as they tried to penetrate the thick wall of red&white stripped shirts, but lost possession too easily whenever they tried to break through.
Barry caught N'Zonzi to earn his 100th yellow card in Premier League football. Eto'o fed Lukaku who turned and ran on to shoot, but an easy gather for Begovic. Another corner was all too easily neutralized.
Eto'o did brilliantly to feed Naismith but Peters was all over him and he could not pull the trigger. Adam was yellow carded for a poor challenge on Mirallas that left him writhing on the ground. Adam later kicked the ball away, blatant time-wasting, ignored by Mason.
The Everton players had huffed and puffed in the difficult conditions but could not find a path to goal, resorting to less elegant football at times in desperation to get something out of the game, but it never looked like happening, as another players promise — to "put things right at Goodison" — sounded increasingly worthless. To add insult, Stoke went above Everton with this win, while the heat will be turned up to inferno level on Roberto Martinez.
Everton face one of the more important matches of Roberto Martinez's reign as they face Stoke City needing to produce a performance and a result that would re-establish their dminishing top-four credentials.
Last weekend's dismal defeat at Southampton intensified scrutiny of the Blues' defensive frailties and their attacking impotence and Mark Hughes's uncompromising side will do their hosts no favours.
Indeed, the Potters are one of the last teams you'd wish to face when you're in need of a good result but Everton's home record against them is a good one and Stoke haven't won on the road since beating Tottenham at White Hart Lane on 9th November... although that result is enough to sound a warning to Martinez ahead of this Boxing Day clash.
The good news is that three key players are expected to be available and allow the manager to field his strongest possible XI. Kevin Mirallas and James McCarthy should be fit to play after recovering from hamstring and ankle injuries respectively, while John Stones is likely to come off the standby list to make his first appearance since early October.
Leon Osman, Darron Gibson and Tony Hibbert are all expected to miss out along with Christian Atsu who is back at his parent club, Chelsea, recovering from a hamstring injury.
Stoke meanwhile, who come into the game two places and two points worse off than the Toffees, will give Peter Crouch a late fitness test on a neck injury and check on the health of Steven Ireland's knee.
There has been talk in the Everton camp of the need to "go on a run" of results but such has been the fits-and-starts nature of the campaign so far that the team just needs to take one game at a time and focus on finding a way to win, however ugly.
Certainly, a top-six finish will take a phenomenal run of form over the second half of the campaign but the manager and his players first need to rediscover the fearless and enterprising football that won them so many admirers — not to mention points! — last season.
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