Everton 3 - 4 Stoke City
For a few glorious minutes after Gerard Deulofeu had gleefully converted Ross Barkley's cross to put Everton 3-2 up it felt as though Roberto Martinez's side had come of age. For weeks, the manager has been talking of his young side's need to mature, to adopt a winning mentality and now, having twice trailed to a confident and enterprising Stoke City side, they had turned the tables and had three points in their grasp.
If the energy and intensity with which his often irrerepressible attack, led by the magnificent Romelu Lukaku, drove themselves on to claw back those two deficits epitomised the best parts of the side the Catalan has assembled, what followed in terms of defending that precious advantage was symptomatic of the glaring deficiencies that underpin the fact that the Toffees, as lauded as they have been in recent weeks for their shwashbuckling approach, will begin 2016 in the bottom half of the Premier League.
Martinez acknowledged that his side needs to be better in those situations – they're words that ring hollow the more they're repeated after every failure to press home an advantage or throw away points from winning positions – but the main thrust of his post-match comments concerned the anger and sense of injustice around the penalty decision that handed Marko Arnautovic the chance to win the game for the Potters from the spot in stoppage time.
It was a rash challenge by John Stones but also, predictably, an awful decision by Mark Clattenburg, a referee who was for years persona non grata at Goodison Park for his antics in a Merseyside derby in 2007, but in laying all the blame on the match official's incompetence Martinez largely missed the bigger picture. As has been the case in so many games in recent weeks, a single point from this match would have been scant reward and far less useful than the succession of threes that Everton have tossed away since leading 2-0 at Bournemouth at the tail end of last month.
More important was what it confirmed about Martinez himself and his naÃ¯vety when it comes to managing leads and closing out matches when his team is ahead in the final stages. He was criticised in the aftermath of that emotionally crippling 3-3 draw at Vitality Stadium for leaving the fatigued Arouna Kone on for the entire game when his contribution to the team's performance had evaporated. Here again, he had one substitution remaining with which he could have shored up defensive midfield and slowed the game down with the introduction of Muhamed Besic but, not for the first time, his cavalier nature go the better of him and in presumably trying to go for a fourth goal, he left the door open for Stoke to grab victory from the jaws of defeat instead.
It was a desperate shame because the attitude shown in recovering from twice going a goal down to two admittedly impressive Xherdan Shaqiri goals – the second was a ridiculously sublime effort that stunned the Goodison Park crowd into silent admiration – was excellent, particularly on the part of the Blues' attacking players. Lukaku was simply unplayable at times, giving as good as he got against a robust Stoke defence while scoring two well-taken goals of his own; Ross Barkley was an effervesent presence probing from deep, teasing opposition players and taking them on in tight spaces; even though he still refuses to shoot enough, Kone was all close control and neat lay-offs; while Gerard Deulofeu, who started poorly and was rightly booked for another pathetic dive in the first half, was one whose display grew in stature, culminating in what should have been the winning goal with 20 minutes to go.
In truth, Deulofeu wasn't the only one to start below par; Everton matched the visitors in the early going as the two teams traded near misses from Barkley, whose whipped shot aimed for the far corner deflected wide and Arnautovic who flashed an effort of his own across Howard's goal. But the home defence was picked apart in the 15th minute by a swift-moving move involving Bojan Krkic whose inside pass was shuffled on by Arnautovic across the Everton box to Shaqiri who swept a shot into to the corner – in annoying accordance with Everton's Law, it was his first goal in Stoke colours.
It was the 13th time in all competitions this season that Martinez's side had conceded the first goal but, once again, they were quick to respond, levelling the match within six minutes with a goal that was beautiful in its execution and simplicity. Barkley carried the ball to the edge of the Stoke box and paused before rolling the ball to the open James McCarthy. The Irishman, starting his first game since Bournemouth, shaped to hit it first time but slipped it to Lukaku insead in front of goal and, level with the Stoke defence, he turned and fired past Jack Butland.
That sparked Everton into greater attacking endeavour and Barkley raced away on the break before back-heeling to Brendan Galloway – his selection in place of Leighton Baines was one of four changes the manager made from the win at Newcastle – but the makeshift left back dragged his shot a yard or so wide. Coleman then went down in the penalty area under Erik Pieters's challenge but referee Clattenburg only awarded a goal kick – a decison that would anger Martinez further in the context of the award of a spot kick to the visitors at the end of the game.
You had the feeling as the game headed for half time that Everton now had the measure of Stoke and that the game was there for them to win if they could maintain their offensive intensity in the second half. Unfortunately, the Blues' high defensive line was caught flat-footed on the stroke of half time. Not for the first time Stones, who, frankly, had an uncharacteristically awful game, delivered a forward pass straight to the opposition and Bojan returned it with interest, a through-ball that dissected the home defence and put Shaqiri in the clear. The Swiss audaciously clipped a half-volley on the run that sailed over the hapless Howard, and spun almost in slow motion into the top corner of the American's goal.
Everton's response was everything a hopeful home faithful could have asked for. The defence had to survive a nervy moment when Glen Johnson easily got around Tom Cleverley at the byline and had to be closed down by Ramiro Funes Mori but the Blues eventually levelled in the 64th minute thanks to the midfielder's quick-thinking at the other end. Cleverley, who had been left out of the starting XI but come on after only 20 minutes for the injured James McCarthy, hooked a superb ball over the top to Lukaku who brought it down high off his chest with aplomb, set himself and then tucked it past Butland into the far corner.
The momentum now with them, the Blues pushed for a third and Steven Naismith, on for Cleverley who himself had to go off with an injury, looked to have got it but his goalbound shot deflected agonisingly wide. It was Deulofeu who got it a few minutes later though when Lukaku put Barkley in on the overlap with a nicely-weighted pass and the midfielder put the ball on a plate for the Spaniard a yard or so from goal where he couldn't miss.
That should have been the game won there with 20 minutes to go but Martinez remained un-reactive, leaving all four of his attacking players on the field and left the tiring Gareth Barry to complete his second full game in less than 48 hours. Hughes, who had thrown on Joselu at 2-2, added John Walters in place of defender Kirk Cameron with 12 minutes to go. It was the former sub who did the damage in the 80th minute, though, after good work by Arnautovic down the left flank and when Howard failed to get any decent purchase on his cross, Joselu hammered a first-time shot back past the 'keeper to restore parity once again.
Carving out a fourth and winning goal proved beyond Everton who just had a wasted corner and Coleman's snatched shot that he ballooned over the bar to show for it. Instead it was Stoke who put together one last incisive move through the space afforded them in the middle of Everton's half and Stones looked to have got a decisive knick on the ball with his out-stretched leg to deny Arnautovic as he tried to power towards goal. Clattenburg initally seemed to agree but after a moment or two's hesitation he pointed to the spot and Arnautovic clattered it down the middle with Howard gambling to his right.
"Unacceptable" was Martinez's assessment of the officials' inconsistency but it's a description equally applicable to Everton's home record. It goes without saying but conceding seven goals at home in the last two matches is no recipe for progress in what can be a relentlessly unforgiving league. Take that late penalty out of the equation and the Blues had still shipped three goals and failed to win for the seventh time in the Premier League this season. Indeed, they've only won four times at Goodison so far and one of those was via a penalty shootout against Norwich. Being one of the most entertaining sides in the top flight – and this certainly was a thrilling game if you were a neutral or Stoke fan – counts for nothing if it means another season of under-achievement and a mid-table finish.
The buck stops with the manager, of course. Martinez has been praised for the exciting young team he has assembled but the concerns over his team's defensive abilities that have dogged him since his days at Wigan, are as acute now as they have ever been since he succeeded David Moyes two and a half years ago. On this evidence, it doesn't look as though this particular leopard is able to change his spots. Phil Jagielka's absence is rightly held up as an important reason for the defensive frailties currently being exhibited by Everton – we were conceding silly goals even with the skipper in the side as well but there is no question that his leadership and experience is needed back there, particularly while Howard fails to inspire confidence and Stones shows signs of believing in his own hype.
As unlikely as the sudden adoption of defensive solidity appears to be, the opportunity for Everton to mount a push for the top six remains open if they can get their act together as they enter what is once again a daunting run of fixtures over the next few weeks. They will go into the New Year game with third-placed Tottenham just five points off fifth place but it's a gap that will be impossible to breach without wins. Martinez's Blues need to start grinding out victories immediately or another season of frustrating medioctrity in the League beckons. Sadly, we look doomed to it unless something significant happens in the coming month.