The wisdom of making wholesale changes to a team for the League Cup has been a frequent subject of debate over the years, not least where Everton goalkeepers are concerned. It was under David Moyes that the widely-deployed selection tactic of a "cup keeper" was brought to Goodison Park and it was his undoing on at least one occasion while Jan Mucha was kicking around Goodison Park.
Last night, the reverse was true – not only were Evertonians comfortable with the idea of nominal "understudy" 'keeper Joel Robles coming in to face Norwich City, after the shambles at the back against Arsenal on Saturday they were positively enthused to see what the Spaniard could do to further his case for an extended run in the first team in the Premier League as well. Not only did Robles prove himself more than capable, he was arguably crucial to the Blues progressing to the quarter finals with a series of fine saves and important guess-work in the penalty shootout that allowed him to foil Wes Hoolahan and heap all the pressure on Nathan Redmond to fire the decisive spot-kick wide.
Job done by the 25-year-old from Getafe, you would think but Roberto Martinez didn't even give Robles the evening to savour his man-of-the-match display; ignoring the recent scrutiny of Tim Howard's increasingly erratic form of late, the manager stated outright after the game that the American would be back in the team on Sunday to face Sunderland.
Martinez is paid to make harsh and unpopular decisions when they are warranted, of course. Derek Mountfield recently recounted his experience in the 1980s when he deputised impressively for the injured Dave Watson only to be dropped back to the bench as soon as Waggy was fit again. Back then, Howard Kendall made a decision for the good of the team to restate one of his best players who had been on top form prior to his injury.
In this instance, however, the manager's rationale appears to be one based on the dressing room status quo and appeasing a veteran player rather than recognising form. Coming as a repeat of the situation last winter when Robles came in and performed well in place of the injured Howard (who was struggling in a noticeable post-World Cup slump) only to be summarily dropped the moment the senior player was fit again, it sets an uneasy precedent and a confusing message for those players bidding to break into the first team.
Of course, Martinez could be forgiven for counting his blessings that the goalkeeping controversy is what fans are talking about after last night rather than an ugly exit from a competition that the Blues should be going hell for leather to win. Call it luck, some sort of manifest destiny in a competition in which they have have always appeared cursed, or the result of having just enough squad depth to get the job done but Everton have yet to put in a convincing display in the Capital One Cup so far this season, much of it down to over-zealous squad rotation.
Three times Roberto Martinez has made significant changes to his starting line-up in the competition and three times he has had to find salvation on his substitute's bench. But where last season his side found humiliation at the first hurdle in Swansea, this morning they find themselves in the quarter finals and two wins from a date under the arch in the Capital.
In the end it required the lottery of penalties to dispose of a Norwich side featuring a number of changes itself but one which nevertheless almost capitalised on what was, on balance, an abysmal Everton performance. It was the first shootout the Toffees have won at Goodison Park since the European Cup tie against Borussia Munchengladbach; somewhat fittingly, given that an illuminated picture of him adorned the side of the stadium in his memory last evening, Howard Kendall scored one of the spot kicks.
It's hard to recall a worst opening 25 minutes to a game from an Everton side. Leon Osman and Darron Gibson betrayed their lack of playing time this season with rusty performances in the first half, Arouna Kone looked curiously lost up front with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas showed only fleeting glimpses of the player he needs to be to regain his own place in the side. Meanwhile, Norwich, themselves featuring seven changes from the weekend, were lively and productive, forcing a succession of corners that had Evertonian hearts in mouths given the team's recent fallibility from set pieces.
And yet, as bad as they were in the opening 45 minutes, the Blues could – and probably should – have gone into half time ahead. Tyias Browning's surging run opened up the visitors' defence for Lukaku but his low, right-foot shot was saved by Declan Rudd and the best passing move from the hosts a few minutes later ended with James McCarthy putting a first-time cros too close to the 'keeper with the Belgian striker lurking in a great position in front of goal.
Everton's vulnerability at set-pieces reared its head again, however, six minutes into the second half. A short corner routine wasn't dealt with and when the ball made its way to the other side of the box and was delivered to the unmarked Sebastien Bassong in the centre, he had the simple task of turning it past Robles from close range.
Like he did at Barnsley and Reading, Martinez turned to his bench for inspiration and found enough of it in the form of Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley to get his side back on level terms with 22 minutes of the regulation 90 to go. The Spanish winger, in particular, helped up the tempo significantly going forward and after the corner he forced was only cleared to Mirallas on the far side, the Belgian sent in a low cross to Osman who scuffed the ball in off the post to make it 1-1.
Both teams had chances to win it in normal time but Lukaku headed a Bryan Oviedo cross narrowly wide at the back post, Osman dragged shot wide and Robles had to be at his best at the other end to push point-blank header over the bar from Lewis Grabban, tip Martin Olsson's shot over and then paw another Grabban effort away.
After Mirallas had squandered a great chance to put Everton ahead in the first half of extra time, the peformance from the home side deteriorated as some of the players without regular playing time this season visibly began to tire. But after Matt Jarvis had gone close with a header at one end, the better opportunities still fell to the Blues as the clock wound down towards penalties; Lukaku did well to stay on his feet as he was wrestled by Bassong but his shot deflected wide and Barkley passed up what looked like a routine square ball for the Belgian to tuck home in the final minute and elected to balloon the ball high over from a tight angle.
The 21-year-old was not made to pay for that moment of over-exuberance, though, and his was one of four perfect Everton penalties in the resulting shootout that the Blues won when Robles dived to his left to smother Hoolahan's kick and Redmond missed trying to ping his penalty into the top corner, much to the relief and delight of the home crowd.
As with any cup game, the important thing is to get through, sometimes by whatever means are necessary. On this occasion, that meant relying on a goalkeeper seizing his chance to shine and finding enough impetus from the substitutes to find a route back into the match, but it's hard to ignore just how bad Everton were at times in this game and how close they came to being dumped out in entirely avoidable circumstances.
The closer we get to Wembley, the more seriously you would hope Martinez takes this competition when it comes to making sweeping personnel changes. But it's the identity of the person in goal where the debate will continue to rage unless the manager's chosen incumbent can get back to his best in short order. The problem for both Howard and manager who has set out his stance is what happens if he doesn't...?