Time will tell if Romelu Lukaku's injury-time strike that kept Everton alive in the FA Cup proves to be some sort of "Kevin Brock" or "Phil-Neville-tackle-on-Ronaldo"-style moment that turns this increasingly miserable season around. It certainly came as a massive relief to a beleaguered Roberto Martinez and his team who were two-plus minutes away from crashing to a fifth successive defeat when the Belgian struck.
The out-pouring of passion from the Blues' no.10 was proof enough of what it meant to Lukaku who has borne an unfair amount of blame for the team's malaise this season and who would have ended his month-long wait for a goal earlier had it not been for the latest episode in the refereeing horror show that is currently playing out in the domestic game.
Anthony Taylor, an official who is no stranger to controversy or utterly mystifying decisions, robbed Lukaku of an equaliser just five minutes after James Collins took full advantage of Sylvain Distin's negligence to put West Ham ahead by disallowing his headed goal for an apparent push on James Tomkinson. But the striker had the last word – as the Blues profited, it should be noted, from a correct advantage call from the referee – with an emphatic goal in injury time that forced a replay at Upton Park next week.
As thrilling a conclusion as it provided, Lukaku's goal masked some serious, ongoing deficiencies in Everton's performance, even if it vindicated a more purposeful approach going forward than was on display at Hull City last Thursday in particular. That it took 20 frustrating minutes following the departure of Kevin Mirallas in favour of Samuel Eto'o (you would hope, again, for reasons of fitness and not strategy) for the home side to finally threaten West Ham's back line again betrayed the desperate manner in which Martinez's side struggled for cohesion and ideas in stretches in the second half. And yet, when the chips were down and they were forced to push men forward and then go wide, they finally scored to avoid what would have been a sixth game without a goal in their last eight in all competitions.
There is no question that the heat would have been turned up significantly on the manager had his record signing not come up trumps at the death; as it is, he has played a Get Out of Jail Free Card and been handed the kind of psychological boost that dressing rooms can build on. It was well-timed, too, given that the next visitors to Goodison Park are the reigning Champions, Manchester City.
The 15 chances created by Everton was the result of a more enterprising display overall than has been the case since the home win over QPR, even if the continuing lack of width in the side, particularly down the left, was a source of frustration on the night. With Leighton Baines apparently ruled out with a previously unmentioned injury picked up at the KC Stadium, Martinez elected to play Bryan Oviedo in his place at left back rather than usher Luke Garbutt back into the starting XI.
It also left the manager short on options in defensive midfield given James McCarthy's continuing recovery from hamstring problems and Darron Gibson's lingering knee issues. That meant continuing with the out-of-form Gareth Barry in partnership with Muhamed Besic while Sylvain Distin was preferred to John Stones who has already had one comeback attempt aborted by a knock to the ankle he injured in October.
If the 22,000-plus souls who showed up were expecting to see fire and brimstone from their wounded heroes, they would have to wait until the dying stages when their team was staring elimination in the face to see it etched on Lukaku's goal celebration. Prior to that, though, and particularly in the first half, they witnessed a suitable improvement on recent performances coupled with a solid defensive stand against a Hammers side that came to Merseyside rightly confident.
Sam Allardyce's men were making better use of the ball in the first half an hour and looked the more dangerous of the two teams overall, winning a succession of corners that were successfully repelled by an Everton side that has become worryingly pregnable in such situations this season. And no wonder, given how they stood off at a free kick in the 13th minute and allowed Stewart Downing, the formerly mockable Liverpool flop, to prompt Joel Robles into palming his effort over the crossbar.
Phil Jagielka then abandoned his duties as leader by example with a glaring error that Enner Valencia proved unable to punish and Matt Jarvis came close to converting a cross flashed across the face of the Everton goal after the resulting corner was worked short on the Hammers' left flank.
At the other end, Lukaku had dragged a shot wide, the busy Steven Naismith had driven a cross-shot right across Adrian's goal and Mirallas saw a good opportunity go begging following Barry's excellent interception from Kevin Nolan's poor touch when his shot looped off a defender, enabling the 'keeper to comfortably save. Adrian was less convincing when Lukaku unloaded from distance, though, spilling the ball twice from similar shots and almost being punished by Mirallas on the first occasion but was able to get a block in as the Belgian forward followed up.
With matters evenly balanced at half time and Everton growing in confidence at the end of the first period, the stage was set for them to push on in the second half and when Mirallas lobbed a volley just over the bar and Naismith was penalised for a non-existent foul by the referee, Goodison began to find its voice.
Growing shouts of encouragement turned to howls of anguish 10 minutes after the restart, though, when Collins scored. Downing had again been afforded too much space to get off a shot that Distin glanced behind for a corner. And when the Frenchman completely abandoned his marking of Collins, the Welsh defender arced his run behind Coleman and ahead of Oviedo and buried an unchallenged near-post header.
Valencia almost doubled the lead two minutes later with another free header that Robles tipped over as the Blues threatened to fall apart completely before Lukaku planted a header of his own beyond the 'keeper and into the far corner... only to see it ruled out for a "foul" on James Tomkinson who appeared to just crumple to the ground under the Belgian's attentions.
What followed had the potential to become another nadir in an already poor season as Mirallas departed, Eto'o came on and Everton largely lost their way in their search for a way back into the game. Distin would also depart a few minutes later with a groin injury, replaced by the more composed and more determined Stones and West Ham dug in to defend their advantage.
They actually came closer to scoring again when Downing drilled a shot narrowly wide but, with escalating pleas from the crowd to push forward, the Blues finally did start to ratchet up the pressure in the closing stages. Barkley, at times a passenger prone to getting caught in possession in advanced areas but always looking capable of turning on the style at any moment, whipped a dangerous ball in that just evaded Lukaku. The 21 year-old then drove into the box via a fortunate ricochet and smashed a shot from the angle that Adrian parried behind.
The last-ditch effort to save the tie bore fruit with almost 92 minutes on the watch. The referee correctly allowed play to go on as McGeady went down in a tangle of West Ham legs outside the area and Oviedo sent the loose ball across the six-yard box where it ended at the feet of Lukaku. The ball sat up to an inviting height off his foot and he scissored home emphatically from close range to release weeks of pent-up collective frustration. His goal, fully deserved for a gutsy and determined personal display, gives Everton a lifeline in the cup and a platform on which Martinez can try to reverse his team's fall in the Premier League.
It doesn't alter the fact that the Catalan's team were at times suspect in defence and failed to consistently press the ball outside their own area – although Stones' return will help shore up the back line in time for City's visit – that they were too narrow without a recognised wide player on one flank or that they often lacked composure and inspiration going forward. But it provides a shot in the arm to a team struggling for confidence and that could prove to be vital in the coming weeks.
With a little less pressure on their shoulders heading into the replay at Upton Park next week, they can hopefully use this result to play with a little more freedom. Feed off the energy and commitment displayed by the likes of Lukaku and Besic this evening and they'll have a good shot but Martinez still has plenty of work to do to get back to the levels of last season.
The Europa League has thus been a fertile arena for Everton where things have largely gone to plan for Roberto Martinez's men but it has been blamed for much of the squad rotation that appeared to disrupt the Blues' Premier League campaign earlier in the season.
Somewhat ironically, Everton have performed worse since their involvement in Europe effectively went on hiatus at the tail end of November, leading to an awful run of form that has thrown their plans for the League campaign into disarray.
The FA Cup might provide a distraction of a more welcome variety for Martinez's men as they seek something to revive their battered confidence but a visit from West Ham is no one's idea of fun these days.
Indeed, the rejuvenated Hammers no doubt counted themselves unfortunate not to come away from Goodison Park with a point in November when Leon Osman's late goal secured what was, at the time, only Everton's second home League win of the season. And they will feel they have little to fear from the fragile Blues who return to an uncertain reception from their home fans aftter consecutive matches away from home.
Martinez could welcome John Stones back to the starting XI after another two-game absence as he seeks a first win since mid-December but James McCarthy is unlikely to make it due to his long-standing hamstring issues.
Martinez held his pre-match press conference at Finch Farm this afternoon and confirmed that Stones, who has missed the last two games with a knock to the ankle on which he had surgery in October, is ready to return. Antolin Alcaraz's suspension makes him a likely starter.
Kevin Mirallas, who was withdrawn at half time of the New Year's Day defeat at Hull is also fit but McCarthy is still in recovery. His manager said that the Irishman is progressing well but that he will play no part in what he labelled a "pivotal" game against the Hammers.
Martinez also used the occasion to dismiss speculation linking Ross Barkley to Manchester City and reiterated that he wouldn't rule out adding to his squad this month, particularly given the lack of experienced cover in goal.
"It's always an opportunity to see if we can help players we have in squad. We'll always take a look to see if we can strengthen," Martinez said.
“We're a bit exposed in [the goalkeeping department]. We're looking into that position to take it a bit further,” he continued but stressed that any acquisition would be on a long-term deal and "not just for the sake of it."
Like many of those players who started at Hull on New Year's Day, Barkley's position in the line-up is by no means guaranteed after Martinez hinted he may make further changes to his team for this unorthodox televised Tuesday evening Third Round kick-off.
A report in the Liverpool Echo suggests that Luke Garbutt could be drafted back into the side which, if true, could mean more game time for Leighton Baines in midfield where he has made a couple of promising appearances.
The key for Martinez is, of course, not to make so many changes that he weakens the side at a time when all he needs is to grind out a victory to use as a platform on which to try and build confidence and a sequence of positive results. More than anything, whichever players he fields need to show character and fight because, on the basis of their form this season, their opposition from the Capital are likely to have both.
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|WEST HAM (4-4-2)|
|Amalfitano (O'Brien 78')|
|Jarvis (Poyet 68')|
|Valencia (Cole 60' )|
|Subs not used|
- Shots on target
- Shots off target