Swansea City 0 - 0 Everton
In the wake of Everton's impressive 3-0 win at Southampton last month, Romelu Lukaku was in bullish mood declaring that, with a full pre-season behind him, he was both physically and mentally ready to put what was a disappointing 2014-15 campaign behind him.
Though he struggled for service in the ensuing Premier League games against Tottenham and Manchester City, he struck twice against Barnsley in the League Cup and played an important, if under-appreciated, role in last weekend's demolition of Chelsea.
That seemed to signal that the Belgian had rediscovered the hunger that typified his breakout season on loan at West Bromwich Albion and his first year with Everton during which, with his flying dreadlocks, seemingly fearless approach and a flurry of goals, he earned a nickname from some quarters of The Beast.
He certainly lived up to that monicker at the St Mary's five games ago but today, when the Blues needed the Lukaku that persuaded Roberto Martinez to shatter the club's transfer record, the "beast mode" Romelu was frustratingly absent.
As the 2-2 draw with Leicester at Goodison last season demonstrated, of which this personal performance from Lukaku was very reminiscent, strikers have off-days; matches where things just don't quite click. Perhaps this was one of those occasions for the former Anderlecht player, a day when his killer instict temporarily deserted him... although it has to be said he generally seemed to lack conviction all day, particularly in areas where he is so often clinical.
Frustratingly, Everton just needed either him or Arouna Kone to get it right once. Martinez's back line had effectively stifled what can be a very enterprising Swansea side – one which had put Manchester United to the sword here at the Liberty Stadium in its last home outing – for much of the contest and were growing in confidence in the second half. It all seemed to be leading up to the one crucial breakthrough that likely would have handed the Blues all three points, but it never arrived.
It wasn't for the want of trying or for the guile and imagination in breaking down stubborn defences that was so often lacking last season. Ross Barkley, all dazzling feet and constant probing, laid gilt-edged opportunities at the feet of both strikers but Kone froze when contact with either foot would surely have resulted in a goal and Lukaku could only shoot straight at Lukas Fabianski; Gareth Barry's beautifully-weighted pass put the Belgian in down the channel but he hammered a right-foot shot high into the stands; and, later, Gerard Deulofeu's trickery ended with a teasing ball straight across the box that Steven Naismith was a hair too late in anticipating and it just eluded his out-stretched foot.
Brendan Galloway, meanwhile, almost became the unlikely hero by capping another outstanding performance with a brilliant goal early in the second half. The 19-year-old, who was positively Leighton Baines-esque in the amount of time he spent pushing forward down the left flank, escaped the close attentions of two Swansea defenders with a neat drag back but, agonisingly, pulled his shot across the face of goal and just wide of the far post.
Had that gone in, it would have been reward for the Blues' strong start to the second period after they'd drawn the home side's fire during a tightly-contested first period in which the effectiveness of all of Jefferson Montero, Andre Ayew, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jonjoe Shelvey was gradually nullified by an excellent Everton rearguard. John Stones, a player for whom observers might soon run out of superlatives, was the stand-out performer with another exhibition of staggeringly composed and effective defending but Tim Howard was effective when called upon and the two young fullbacks, Galloway and Tyias Browning, belied their comparative lack of experience with hugely impressive individual performances.
Indeed, it was Browning, playing instead of the injured Seamus Coleman, who restricted Montero to just a handful of dangerous moments on Swansea's left and the combination of Galloway and Phil Jagielka shut down the threat from Ayew, while Barry and James McCarthy were relentless in closing down the space on which Shelvey and Sigurdsson thrive. And when they did manage to feed Bafetimbi Gomis up front, Howard was on hand to smother a well-struck half-volley from the Frenchman, see a shot by the same player past his right-hand post following an almost catastrophic back header by Barry and parry away his powerful effort in the second half. He also batted a stinging drive from Montero behind for a corner.
As the better side overall, Everton should have won, though and completed what would have been an almost perfect away performance. The fact that only two of their 17 shots were on target told the story, however, and it underscored the gamble that Martinez took in first ruling out buying another striker this past summer and then, having changed his mind, finished the window without having added a reliable, experienced marksman to the squad. The question of what happens if Lukaku gets injured or, like today, just isn't at the races in front of goal should not really have been left to chance.
It's true that most Blues would have taken a point before the game but in the final reckoning it was an opportunity to pick up three that was spurned. Nevertheless, Kevin Mirallas' late red card for a sloppy studs-up challenge on Modou Barrow aside, it was a hugely encouraging outing in a season that is yet young, not least because Barkley continued his upward trajectory following last season's fall from relative grace. Driving from his slightly withdrawn role, he was a box of tricks who wriggled out of seemingly impossible situations at times while at others he would appear to have snookered himself with Peter Beagrie-esque over-elaboration, only to glide past his man with ease.
In that sense, therefore, the boon to his confidence, that of Browning and Galloway and, by extension, the team as a whole might ultimately mean that his goalless affair and the solitary point Everton earned from it comes to represent a lot more in the long run.