Newcastle United 0 - 1 Everton
This is how it was supposed to feel after Bournemouth. The elation of a last-minute winner; three vital away points and a psychological platform on which to build after a tough run of fixtures over the first quarter of the season.
That game at Vitality Stadium marked, of course, the first of four matches which Everton absolutely should have won but just couldn't get themselves over the line, leaving the club in the bottom half of the table at kick-off for the late afternoon game in the northeast. This one looked to be the heading towards the same frustrating conclusion of a draw until Tom Cleverley intervened with the last meaningful touch of the game.
True to recent form, the Blues' territorial superiority and dominance of possession had largely dissipated by the final 20 minutes of the contest and it was anyone's game at that point. That had allowed Newcastle a shot at winning a match in which they had mostly been second best for long periods.
Steve McClaren's strategy of allowing Everton the ball and hoping to catch the visitors on the counter attack hadn't proved successful in the first half and the only time they really threatened Tim Howard's goal was when Daryl Janmaat – a player who benefitted from referee Lee Mason's lenience when he escaped a cast iron second yellow card – crossed for Aleksander Mitrovic but the Serbian couldn't make a proper connection with his head.
At other end, Everton's attractive football and purposeful movement lent them an air of complete control over proceedings but they struggled to fashion clear-cut opportunities. Neat control by Kevin Mirallas, handed a starting berth in place of Arouna Kone, saw him bring down an early cross and force the first of a number of saves by Rob Elliot from a tight angle.
The Belgian's second effort from a more central position 18 yards from goal was more routine but the Newcastle goalkeeper had to be alert to beat away a low drive from Romelu Lukaku shortly after the striker appeared to have earned a clear penalty when he was dragged down in the six-yard box by Fabricio Coloccini. Not surprisingly, Mason had either not seen the incident or chose not to award a spot kick.
The pattern established in the first period continued into the second where it was Everton who continued to carry the greater threat. John Stones and Ramiro Funes Mori were comfortable in defence and were even afforded license to roam forward from time to time, while Seamus Coleman was able to regularly raid down the right in support of Aaron Lennon who had been preferred to Gerard Deulofeu.
In midfield, Gareth Barry continued to be the age-defying mobile linchpin that he has been for so much of the season, ably assisted by Cleverley's energy and Ross Barkley's mercurial probing from deep behind Mirallas and Lukaku. The latter Belgian was searching for the goal that would have matched Bill Dean's record of scoring in nine successive games in all competitions and he looked a good bet to do so when he rolled Chancel Mbemba impressively and drove on Elliot's goal but, once again, the 'keeper was equal to it and made an excellent save with his leg.
Lennon, too, was foiled by Elliot who denied him with a one-handed save as the Blues continued to press for a winner that didn't look like it was going to come. The former Spurs winger made way for Deulofeu shortly afterwards, with Barkley being replaced, somewhat surprisingly, by Muhamed Besic but neither substitution prevented the relative parity in the two team's respective performances heading into the final 20 minutes of the game.
Ayoze Perez dragged a shot narrowly wide from 18 yards, Georginio Wijnaldum might have scored were it not for excellent positioning from Howard who parried his shot on the line, and Mitrovic probably should have scored but somehow headed wide from the Dutch midfielder's chipped centre.
At the other end, Ramiro Funes Mori's downward header was batted away off his goal line by Elliot and Coleman flashed a left-footer wide as the Blues pushed for a late winner but the two sides seemed destined to share the spoils from an entertaining but goalless draw until Everton sprang away from their own penalty area on the break.
Lukaku was fed the ball in the middle of the park and some distance from goal but, defying the heavy pitch which had taken a visible toll on the players by this stage of proccedings, he surged into the Magpies' box, was able to drag it away from Paul Dummett's challenge but was denied at the last by a superb covering tackle by Mbemba.
Deulofeu swung in the resulting corner, Elliot made arguably his first and most costly error of the game by punching straight to Cleverley and the midfielder sent the ball back into the top corner from 16 yards with a looping header to spark jubilation on the pitch and high in the stands among the travelling Evertonians. Finally, justice in terms of the balance of play had been done and Everton had handed their fans a nice Christmas present.
If the Bournemouth draw bore the hallmarks of the kind of result that Martinez might have referred back to at the end of the season as a psychological blow from which his players never recovered, the manner in which his charges won this game will hopefully feel like redemption and a new lease on life in terms of morale. A victory now over a much-improved Stoke side which looks to be gelling well after initial teething problems with Mark Hughes's new signings would dramatically improve the Blues' prospects and optimism heading into the New Year.
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