If, as you would hope, Roberto Martinez and his players have designs on achieving an eighth-place finish in the Premier League that would bring some respectability to an otherwise poor domestic season, then a meeting with the current occupants of that spot represented a tempting opportunity to gain ground with just seven games left in the campaign.
Everton were on course to return to winning ways over Swansea City having got on top of Gary Monk's side with an increasingly accomplished first-half display and had taken the lead through Aaron Lennon's second goal for the club. True to their form as the side to have thrown away the most points from winning positions in the top flight this term, however, the Blues allowed the Swans back into the contest in the second half and were punished for another critical individual error, this time from Seamus Coleman.
Martinez has stated often over the last couple of weeks that Everton would be doing everything they could to finish the season on a high and with as many points as possible from the remaining games. That was perhaps borne out by the fact that he named an unchanged team from the won that beat Southampton last weekend, keeping the fit-again Kevin Mirallas on the bench and playing Ross Barkley off Arouna Kone in the continued absence of Romelu Lukaku with a hamstring injury.
The visitors started with the confidence generated by three successive victories and with some of the tidy possession-based football that has become a feature of Martinez's tenure. It was joined by more of the familiar lack of end product in the final third, though, and for all Everton's dominance in the first quarter of an hour, it was Swansea who twice nearly scored through Bafatembu Gomis.
The French striker popped up in the area in the seventh minute but was swiftly closed down by Leighton Baines before he could get a shot away. Then, seven minutes after that, he whipped a snap-shot from the edge of the box that was heading for the top corner until Tim Howard pulled off a flying finger-tip save to turn it around the post.
Gomis injured himself executing the shot and had to be withdrawn with what looked like a hamstring strain a few minutes later and with him temporarily went Swansea's attacking momentum. Martin Emnes replaced him but while the dreadlocked Dutchman looked the part, it would take him another half an hour or so to make an impact on the game.
In between, it was the Blues who continued in the ascendency, particularly once Martinez had been forced into an early substitution of his own by a groin problem for Leon Osman. Steven Pienaar came on in his place and immediately added his brand of guile of which Everton have been deprived for so much of the season.
After Coleman had forced the first save from Lukas Fabianski with a low drive that was heading for the far corner until the goalkeeper pushed it past the post, the South African was involved in the build-up to Everton's goal. The ball was eventually worked wide to Kone, he nudged it on to James McCarthy and though his cross eluded Pienaar in the centre, the ball dropped nicely to Lennon who set himself with one touch before burying the chance with his second.
Pienaar then played Kone in with a neat reverse pass but the Ivorian couldn't beat Fabianski from a tight angle and when the roles were reversed in first-half injury time, Pienaar couldn't get enough power or bend on a side-foot shot after collecting Kone's back-heel.
Given the Blues' propensity to throw away leads this season, a second goal to kill the game was always going to be important but with Kone again found wanting as the lone striker and Barkley struggling to consistently provide a threat going forward, the ball was increasingly coming back through Everton's as attacks broke down in the final third.
By the hour mark, it was obvious that Martinez needed to make a change up front to help make the ball "stick" a little more in Swansea's half but the manager remained characteristically unmoved as Monk's side began to turn the tables. First Ki Sung-yueng beat Baines with a deft touch but skied his shot from a difficult angle and then the Liberty Stadium erupted in claims for a penalty when Wayne Routledge fell in the box under a challenge from Baines.
Referee Michael Oliver waved those appeals away but pointed to the spot two minutes later when Coleman went down in his own area under the attentions of Emnes and made the mistake of handling the ball expecting the official to blow for a foul in his favour. In truth, there was little contact from the striker save for his hands on the Irishman's back but with so many of those types of challenges drawing routine fouls these days, Coleman could have been forgiven for expecting a whistle. He paid for the error of not playing to that whistle, though, and conceded a crucial spot kick that Jonjoe Shelvey despatched clinically.
It would be another seven minutes before Martinez belatedly brought on Steven Naismith to replace the ineffective Kone who, having been booked in the first half for leading with his arm in an aerial challenge with Fernandez and then profited from Oliver's leniency when he clattered through the same player midway through the second period, was now on very thin disciplinary ice.
Barkley tried his luck with a couple of poor pot-shots from distance but what was arguably the Blues' best chance – and simultaneously illustrative of the lack of conviction that rusn through much of the team – fell to McCarthy but as the space for a shot from 12 yards opened up in front of him, he tried to over-elaborate with a flicked ball to the side that failed to find its mark and the chance evaporated.
Howard pushed a Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick over the crossbar at one end as the match moved into the closing stages, Baines put yet another corner straight into the arms of Fabianski and late sub Mirallas gave the 'keeper an routine save with a 20-yard effort before the referee called time on a 1-1 draw.
A fourth match unbeaten keeps the belated recovery alive and keeps Everton's hopes of a top-half finish alive but where those who made the long journey to South Wales were no doubt looking for some demonstration from the team of what could be possible next season under Martinez, they found a familiar lack of cutting edge and failure on the manager's part to make proactive changes to keep hold of the lead.
Everton had sufficient control of proceedings to suggest that they might have got an all-important second goal had Lukaku been on the field but with just the ever willing but inadequate Kone as an option up front – the consequence of Martinez's decision not to replace Samuel Eto'o and to not introduce Mirallas in a forward role much earlier in the game – there just wasn't enough fire-power.
Regardless, it's likely they still would have collected that fourth win on the bounce without Coleman's error because Swansea were largely being contained despite their increasing share of possession in the second half.
Everton were unchanged from the side that beat Southampton last weekend, and therefore still without Romelu Lukaku. Naismith and Mirallas started on the bench.
Both sides started by playing fairly neat possession football in the first couple of mins, Everton soon gaining momentum, with Lennon winning the first corner that Baines delivered to the far post, where Fabianski gathered.
Jagielka clashed heads with Routledge who went down for the count. Sigurdsson scooped in the free-kick but Jagielka cleared the danger. Gomis then turned on a very inviting ball that he fired in to the top corner but Howard pulled off an excellent save to deflect it around. But Swansea tested the Blues defence on the following corners, Williams heading behind and Fernandez applying pressure. However, the shot from Gomis strained his hamstring and Mendez replaced him with barely 15 mins gone.
It took quite a while for Everton to mount their second attack, nothing coming of a cross in from Coleman, except a free-kick in the forward third. Again, the delivery looked good but Fabianski gathered it easily at the far post. Osman then fouled Ki and Everton were under pressure again. Kone was booked for jumping with a leading arm that caught Fernandez.
Osman was withdrawn with a groin problem, Pienaar replacing him after less than half-an hour, to team up with Baines. Barkley tried a low shot from distance that was easy for Fabianski. Routledge fouled Baines just before Shelvey fired home; no goal.
Everton were still struggling to make much impression until Coleman struck a great shot in low that Fabianski turned behind but nothing came of the corner. Coleman won a corner on the other side that came to nothing. A more promising move saw Pienaar drive forward and Barkley play in Coleman wide right, winning a throw, then Pienaar winning another corner, gathered by Fabianski at the far post.
A good move down the left finally saw something happen, started by Pienaar, with McCarthy getting to the byeline and cutting the ball back really well to Lennon who steadied himself and picked out the bottom corner to finish very nicely. 1-0 to Everton.
Kone turned well and stung Fabianski's gloves after a very nice ball in from Pienaar, who had made a tremendous difference since coming on for Osman. Everton looked to get forward again but shocking hesitation and lack of awareness from Barkley saw the whole move grind to a painful halt.
A sequence of rather adventurous Barcelona-like tika-taka interchange passing saw Kone (who should have shot himself) set up a strike for Pienaar in the 3 mins added before the break, as Everton finished the first half very strongly.
The second half took a while to get going, Lennon making a great run down the right wing but his ball in to Kone was poor. Taylor came through the back of Lennon and saw yellow and the game opened up a little, Everton crossing for Jagielka(!) at the far post but again Fabianski gathered.
Some excellent possession play down the left won the first corner of the second half, Barry getting his head on Baines's delivery but Fabianski gathered the ball as it was going wide. Everton were trying to be a little too intricate through the middle, Barkley getting involved but not really imposing himself on the game as he should be doing.
Everton were controlling the game as the hour-mark approached, but Gomis did make a good run and shot wide. Kone went in rather heavily on Cork and could have been booked. Ki then tried to score from a tight angle and fired over as Swansea saw a little more of the ball.
Swansea had their best spell, Everton unable to get the ball as Coleman and Baines had to defend strongly, deflected two penalty claims. But then, on a later attack, a bizarre penalty given away, handball by Coleman in the far corner of the area. Howard then played silly buggers, cleaning his boots on the post, and getting booked by Oliver before Shelvey sent Mr USA the wrong way and Everton had very cheaply surrendered their hard-won advantage. Criminal.
Shelvey tried to strongarm Jagielka and got a lecture off Michael Oliver but no booking as Everton tried to reassert their superiority. Barkley got a shot off but it was poor.
Lots of physical clashes finally saw Williams clumsily take out McCarthy with an awful challenge and get yellow. McCarthy got a glorious chance, running in on goal, but choosing completely the wrong option.
Lennon fouled Sigurdsson, who saw Howard push his free-kick over the bar. Barkley was replaced by Mirallas for the last 5 mins. Everton tried to push for the winner with 4 mins of added time but the two points had been well and truly squandered from a position of strong superiority.
With relegation fears effectively banished thanks to three Premier League wins in a row, Everton now have a top-ten finish in their sights with seven games of the season remaining.
Last weekend's win over Southampton briefly lifted the Blues into 11th place, five points behind Stoke City in 10th but Roberto Martinez will know that if his team can keep on stringing together positive results then some pride – not to mention valuable prize money – can be salavaged from a disappointing campaign.
The Catalan takes his charges back to the Liberty Stadium this weekend, scene of one of the worst performances of the season when they were turfed out of the Capital One Cup by the Swans' first ever win over an Everton side. An early League Cup exit was par for the course for the Toffees but 3-0 reverse and the manner in which it was suffered foreshadowed further calamity to come in the Premier League.
With one eye on re-establishing his side as a force capable of challenging for Europe again next term, Martinez will be seeking a very different outcome in the lunchtime Saturday kick-off.
He will likely have to achieve it without Romelu Lukaku who remains a big doubt with a hamstring injury. He came off clutching the back of his thigh against Queens Park Rangers a fortnight ago and then missed both of Belgium's international games plus Everton's League game against the Saints last Saturday. He is rated as 50-50 for this weekend but would be a surprise inclusion.
Should he miss out again, Arouna Kone will be the one to lead the line again, a responsibility he struggled with against Southampton. The Ivorian has shown himself to be tidy enough holding the ball up and bringing team mates into play but his final ball and his finishing have been sorely lacking since he has been given a run in the side and, to date, his opener at Newcastle at the end of December remains his only goal in Royal Blue.
Kone was supported by Ross Barkley last time out, with Aaron Lennon on the right flank but Steven Naismith made a positive impact when he came on as a 70th-minute substitute and Kevin Mirallas is waiting in the wings to make his first start in a while after recovering from a dead leg. All will provide Martinez with options going forward, particularly if Lukaku is indeed ruled out.
In midfield, Darron Gibson's season could be over after he fractured a bone in his foot last week but Steven Pienaar is fit again and could play a part and will likely vie with Mirallas and Leon Osman for the wider left berth. Gareth Barry and James McCarthy are the expected central midfield partnership and no changes are likely in the back four or in goal.
For their part, Swansea have been a little unpredictable lately, having taken three away points from the St Mary's and beaten Manchester United at home but then losing at Tottenham and at the Liberty Stadium against Liverpool.
With 13 wins in all, they remain in eighth place coming into the weekend, however, occupying the highest place Everton can realistically achieve over the season run-in. A win for the Blues would lift them to within six points of the Swans and closer to touching distance of £6m more in Premier League prize money.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Shelvey (Dyer 84')|
|Gomis (Emnes 17')|
|Subs not used|
|9||West Ham United||43|
|14||West Bromwich Albion||33|
|18||Queens Park Rangers||26|