Norwich City 1-1 Everton
There are some who will say that the top four was never on for Everton this season and when the Blues' chances were weighed against their poor 2014-15 campaign, the expenditure by the likes of Manchester United over the summer and the apparent lock that the new "big four" – rounded out by Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea – were presumed to again have on the Champions League places, it would have been hard to argue against that notion at the start of the campaign.
With the glorious unpredictability of this year's edition of the Premier League so far, however, opportunity has opened up for a club from outside of that quartet to break into the top four. While United are bogged down by injury problems and a lack of direction under Louis van Gaal's uninspiring management and neither Arsenal nor City can seem to be able to string enough wins together to get their necks out in front at the top of the table, all three clubs look set to contest the prized Champions League spots but Chelsea's spectacular collapse may leave one place up for grabs.
Sadly, on the evidence so far, Everton look unlikely to claim it and for all the attacking promise of Roberto Martinez's relatively youthful side, this game and the two that preceded it in the League illustrate precisely why. The Toffees have been the better team in each of the contests against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Norwich City and, having taken the lead in on each occasion, you'd have have expected them to go on and win them. Unfortunately, instead of nine points and a place where they would be breathing down the necks of the top four, Everton are hovering in mid-table – below the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford and Leicester – contemplating their failure to press home those precious advantages.
Given the bitter feeling of having snatched "defeat" from the jaws of victory at Dean Court and against Palace, this trip to struggling Norwich was seen as a must in terms of picking up three points ahead of three more vital League games before the end of the year. And by the time the half-time whistle blew at Carrow Road, Martinez's men certainly seemed to have recognised the urgency and looked intent on putting the Canaries to the sword.
Theirs was, as their manager would remark after the game, as good an away performance as you're likely to see; the problem was, the fine display lasted just 45 minutes and Everton had only one goal to show for it by the midway point. If the encounter wouldn't quite fit the ball as the quintessential game of two halves in the final reckoning, the drop-off in the Blues' intensity and effectiveness after the interval was stark enough and they were probably fortunate that Cameron Jerome smashed an absolute sitter over Tim Howard's crossbar with 20 minutes to go. A draw offers just a point more than a defeat but you can just imagine the reaction had we lost...
Norwich simply looked there to be taken apart at times in the first period and both Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku looked hell-bent on doing just that from early on in proceedings. The Spaniard spurned a couple of promising solo break-aways as the home defence parted for him like the Red Sea but, true to his hit-and-miss reputation, he served up another brilliant assist for the Belgian with a quarter of an hour gone. A corner kick was initially cleared but John Stones kept it alive by chasing the ball down the byline, passing it back for Deulofeu to whip a beauty to the back post for Lukaku to deftly nod home from close range. It was the Belgian's seventh consecutive game with a goal and it took his tally in the League to 12 in just 16 games.
It also sparked a flurry of Everton advances that looked certain to add to the lead but Arouna Kone was twice foiled by Rudd racing off his line to charge down excellent opportunities while Lukaku somehow fluffed a shot wide at the back stick but his blushes were partially spared by the offside flag, even though the deflection that had put it into his path had come off a Norwich player.
Despite Everton having assumed near complete control of the game, the second goal wouldn't come. Stones was releaxed and impressive at the back, Tom Cleverley operating with the same mix of intensity without the ball and intelligence coming forward as he had shown for much of the game against Palace, and the trio of Lukaku, Kone and Deulofeu looking dangerous on almost every attack.
A combination of a lack of ruthlessness, a measure of bad luck played their part – Lukaku passed up the chance to bury one cross from the right with his head opting for the spectacular air-kicked instead before Leighton Baines hammered the loose ball off the post – and a dash of complacency all seemed to restrict the Blues to a single goal. If there was a decisive moment in the first half it came in injury time when Lukaku dragged a shot inches wide at the end of another Everton counter-attack.
In hindsight, it's a short leap to blame Everton for not being clinical enough in those first 45 minutes and they were profligate, but it was clear that had they maintained the drive and creativity they had shown in the first half for the majority of the second, they would surely have found the net again and claimed those three important points. The dynamic of game changed almost straight away after half time, though, when Norwich equalised in entirely predictable circumstances.
Stones allowed Jerome to muscle by him on the Canaries' left touchline and sent in a cross that was put behind for a corner by Baines on the other side. As the resulting set-piece was delivered to the back corner of the six-yard box, a Norwich player easily out-jumped Stones who remained rooted to the floor and though Tim Howard got a hand on the ball and Barkley stopped it on the line, Wes Hoolahan was on hand to force it over the line.
From there – and credit to Norwich for the way in which they responded to their first-half disarray – the contest shifted to being a much more open affair and Deulofeu started to lose his way as the half wore on. Barkley had been mostly tidy on the ball but seemed to lack any guile or intent to drive forward the ball and it was no surprise that when Martinez was moved to make changes, it was the two young attacking midfielders who were replaced.
The benefciaries of the decisions were Kevin Mirallas and Darron Gibson but neither player was able to make much of an impact on proceedings and as Kone and was moved to a less effective role wide on the right Everton lapsed into their familiar pattern of slowed tempo and a propensity to want to walk the ball through the opposition defence. They were never able to recapture the dynamism or dominance they had enjoyed in the first half but they still carved out a couple of decent chances.
The first saw Baines roll a ball across the face of Rudd's goal that was just beggingto be tapped home but there were no Blue jerseys for yards; the second arrived at Gareth Barry's feet on the edge of the six-yard box but Rudd was on hand once more, expertly closing down the angle to block his goalbound shot.
With three more games to go until the halfway stage of the season, of course, a top-four finish isn't of the question but on current evidence it's highly unlikely. To achieve it, Martinez's side would have to do it the hard way, by winning games above the teams above them in the table, something they have failed to do even once so far. That is going to entail not only better luck with injuries and the continuation of Lukaku's flow of goals but, more than anything, it will require a significant shift in mentality from manager and players alike.
It's also going to remain an unattainable dream if the team is unable to score enough goals to offset its weaknesses at the back from crosses and dead-ball situations. It's the price of having a young, inexperienced pairing at the heart of your defence backed by an ageing goalkeeper who no longer appears to inspire confidence in those around him. It's a rearguard that is coming up short every time it is being seriously examined and it either needs to be addressed or over-compensated for at the other end, a big ask for some talented but equally youthful attackers.
Martinez talks of the need to be ruthless and turn all of these draws into victories but talk is cheap and time is short. There are no guarantees that the current instability in the upper reaches of the Premier League will continue throughout the season so the window of opportunity could soon close. If only the danger of losing some of our crown jewels next summer weren't so clear and present, it all might not be quite so agonising.