Everton 2 - 1 Manchester City
When Everton were handed what was, on paper, the most diffcult route to the Capital One Cup Final in the draw for the last four, the obvious feeling was that they had to win the first leg at home to have the best chance of negotiating their way past Manchester City. Thanks to an impressive performance that blended patience, tenacity, skill, organisation and a heavy dose of character the Blues will take a slender but precious lead to the Etihad in three weeks' time.
The sight of Romelu Lukaku limping heavily away in celebration may take some of the elation out of watching clips of what proved to be the winning goal on the night – a simple but emphatic close-range header by the Belgian off Gareth Barry's peach of a cross – over and over but Roberto Martinez's belief that he didn't suffer anything serious means that there will be quiet anticipation among Evertonians that the team can see the job through in the second leg.
All three of Martinez, Barry and Phil Jagielka – not to mention the back office who had adorned the large sign on the side of the Main Stand with some classic cup moments from Everton's past – had done their bit in the media and matchday programme to build up the atmosphere before the game and Goodison Park didn't disappoint, particularly once the Blues had begun to get a grip on the game in the second half of the first period and the possibility of a first home win at the Grand Old Lady since November emerged.
If there was a final piece to that pre-match jigsaw, one that might ensure a bear pit-esque reception for Manchester City, it came with the announcement of Martinez's starting XI which, with Joel Robles in goal, Gerard Deulofeu on the right and Muhamed Besic in the centre, met most Evertonian expectations given the personnel available. Substitute, perhaps, a fit Jagielka for Ramiro Funes Mori and an in-form Kevin Mirallas for Tom Cleverley and he might have satisifed the vast majority but this was, arguably, the ideal meld of the pragmatic with the artful, the defensive imperative weighed against the Blues' attacking instincts.
And yet, it was Funes Mori, a player over whom a few questions marks have been raised in recent weeks as the gloss appeared to come off his surprisingly easy transition to life in the Premier League, who was in the right place and the right time to turn home the opening goal on the stroke of half time after Everton had had two goals correctly chalked off for offside. Looking more assured in a back line that, as was the case against Tottenham on Sunday, held its shape and appeared more disciplined that in previous matches, the Argentine was excellent on the night and his second goal for the club provided the perfect platform for the second half.
The 24-year-old was not alone in impressing. Indeed, there wasn't a player in royal blue who didn't rise to the challenge of meeting the League Cup favourites, but the midfeld linchpin formed by Barry's partnership with Besic was integral to Everton's victory. Both were imperious in the Blues' engine room – the veteran Englishman constantly moving, breaking up City's attempts to knit together their trademark passing moves; the combustible young Bosnian firing on adrenaline and a new lease on life following his injury frustrations, chasing, tackling, probing forward, laying off intelligent passes, and even pirouetting his way elegantly past a clutch of flourescent City jerseys in the centre circle at one point before starting another attack.
The start was slow as both teams sparred in the early stages without really landing any punches and the Blues tried to find their passing range and accuracy. City had the better of the first 20-odd minutes with a few slick moves aimed at releasing David Silva or Sergio Aguero into the danger zone but they were comfortably dealt with. Everton, meanwhile, began to assert themselves as the half wore on, forcing a corner and a couple of free kicks in dangerous areas, one of which ended with John Stones converting Barry's header back across goal, only to have his effort ruled out for offside 10 minutes before the break.
The danger posed by the expert marksman Aguero was ever present but the hosts largely managed to keep him at arm's length in the first half, until he popped up in the box and was foiled first by Stones's lunging block and then Robles's parrying save from the Argentina striker's snapshot. Leighton Baines had the chance to mop up as the ball fell to him but he sliced it straight back to Aguero and was saved by Funes Mori who stopped what was a tamer effort near the goal line.
The half was heading towards an acceptably goalless conclusion when Everton scored in stoppage time. Cleverley's corner from the right skipped through to Ross Barkley on the edge of the area and he drilled a terrific shot on goal that Willy Caballero did well to parry. It fell straight to the alert Funes Mori, however, and fired it past the goalkeeper before tearing away to execute a gleeful celebratory knee-slide.
So far, so great, but Martinez's gameplan suffered a potential dent at the interval when Cleverley was unable to continue into the second half with a recurrence of a calf injury. He was replaced by Leon Osman without too much disruption or real diminishment of the energy in midfield. Indeed, Everton retained a foot on the pedal in the first quarter of an hour after half time, their attacking intent underscored by a succession of offside calls against them in the final third, a Besic drive from distance that was wel gathered by Caballero and an awkward Deulofeu cross that the goalkeeper had to bat away from danger.
Later in the half, Barkley out-muscled Nicolas Otamemdi superbly and forced a good save by his near post from Caballero with a shot from the angle before dancing his way past two or three defenders but then being denied at the last by the goalie's dive at his feet.
In between, however, Manuel Pellegrini's men had offered intermitten reminders of how delicately the tie was poised at 1-0 and Aguero had Evertonian hearts in their mouths when he swung at a loose ball in front of goal but, improbably given his talent, sliced it high and wide of Robles's goal. Silva than released the forward down the channel but Aguero was well tracked by Baines and Funes Mori, the latter blocking his shot behind for a corner. And Robles pulled off his finest moment of the night with 20 minutes left with a sprawling one-handed save to deny Kevin de Bruyne.
City did level, though, a few minutes later when they expertly picked the Blues off on a counter-attack following a corner. Kevin Mirallas, recently on for Deulofeu who had provided energy and plenty of running but failed to impact the game where it really mattered, was dispossessed inside the visitors' box and a ball forward sent Aguero away with Coleman and Besic in pursuit. He turned the Irishman easily, committed Besic as well and then waited for Jesus Navas to arrive before sliding him in to sweep a left-footed shot past Robles and into the far corner.
Everton have lacked composure at times this season but they have rarely been short of character when needing to respind to conceding goals and, true to form, they had responded quickly and incisively within two minutes, eradicating any notion that City had turned the tide in the way they did at Watford at the weekend. The ball was worked from Mirallas on the right flank through Besic and Baines to the left and when his pass was laid off by Barkley, Barry curled in an inch-perfect ball for Lukaku to nod firmly home to send Goodison back into rapture.
He would be replaced by Arouna Kone after trying to run off an ankle knock he had picked a minute or so before his goal and he was qiuckly followed into the bench by Coleman who suffered what turned out to be a calf injury, one that left Everton to play out the final seven-plus minutes with 10 men, Martinez having used all his permitted substitutes by that stage. The manager had called this week for more maturity from his players in closing out matches from winning positions and it was to their credit that the Blues did so so effectively with depleted numbers.
That capped what was a laudibly composed and effective performance from an Everton side that looks like it has come of age since its humbling by Stoke at the end of last year. The likes of Silva, Yaya Toure and, to a lesser extent, De Bruyne, have attracted much criticism for their subdued display but huge credit must go to the Blues for hustling them out of their stride and refusing to allow them to play.
Martinez will feel – he actually indicated as much in a post-match interview – that his team might have scored more with a bit more nous in the final third and the late loss of Coleman might have tempered Everton's ability and daring to go in search of a third goal but, as it stands, they're well positioned heading into the second leg where an away goal of their own would only enhance their prospects of making their first Wembley final in seven years.
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