Chelsea 3-3 Everton
Seldom has a draw felt like such a crushing defeat. Everton came within seconds of a season-igniting victory at Stamford Bridge, their first in the Premier League there since Joe Royle’s second game in charge 22 years ago, but were denied by horrendous officiating that will ensure that what was already an extraordinary game of football will live long in the memory.
It will stick in the craw of supporters, players and manager alike with equal longevity, too. Chelsea were on the brink of another damaging defeat in their train-wreck of a season but were afforded an extra minute beyond the seven indicated by fourth official Craig Pawson (apparently at the prompting of Guus Hiddink) with which to plunder a heartbreaking equaliser from a clearly offside position. The goal was allowed to stand and referee Mike Jones blew the whistle immediately afterwards, leaving Roberto Martinez as angry as Evertonians have seen him in front of the cameras after the match.
Describing the lack of a decision for offside as “horrific” and “diabolical”, the manager probably didn’t go as far as many fans would have wanted him to — FA fine be damned! — as he took issue with the fact that stoppage time was allowed to bleed on, seemingly until Chelsea got the second equaliser they were desperately seeking.
And yet there was still something inevitable about the last-gasp insult inflicted on the travelling Blues who witnessed what was, in terms of the twists and turns in the scoreline, a carbon copy of the calamity at Bournemouth at the end of November. Having not learned from that bitter experience — one that seemed to reverberate through four of the next five Premier League games in which points were dropped either from positions of strength or when the Toffees were leading — Martinez’s men were doomed to repeat it, giving up a 2-0 advantage, grabbing back the lead at the death and then allowing precious seconds of added time (80 of them in this case) to build as they celebrated wildly with their jubilant fans.
What unfolded at the end of an eighth minute of stoppage time was cruel beyond belief – for the third season running they conceded a crucial goal at Stamford Bridge at the last – but Everton were perhaps guilty of making their own bad luck by not pulling everybody back, keeping hold of the ball while they had it and seeing the game out. Gerard Deulofeu’s decision not to turn away from Kenedy and pass backwards but to try and take him on was punished by the Brazilian whose lofted ball eventually ended with John Terry — it f**king had to be him, didn’t it? — stealing in to flick home Chelsea’s third, despite being a yard offside from Oscar’s nod forward.
It was the last act of a contest packed full of incident. Coming off the back of two creditable draws against Tottenham and Manchester City in the Premier League, ones defined by new-found defensive organisation in a team that has become infamous for its generosity at the back, and a win over the Citizens in the League Cup, Everton looked by the time an hour had elapsed to have played this game masterfully.
They had more than matched their supposedly superior hosts in the first half, carving out two clear-cut chances to Chelsea’s one, saved well by Tim Howard from Willian, and were it not for a wayward first-time shot by stand-in right back, Bryan Oviedo, and an excellent save by Thibault Courtois to deny the recalled Kevin Mirallas who turned his marker beautifully and smacked a shot from 20-plus yards, Martinez’s side might have gone into the interval a goal to the good.
They were rewarded for their adventure just five minutes into the second period, however, when strong play and a lay-off by Romelu Lukaku to Leighton Baines ended with the left back searching the Belgian out with a wicked low cross that Terry inadvertently turned into his own net.
It could have been 2-0 just three minutes later when Ross Barkley, who had displayed strength and impressive close control all game up to that point, popped up in the opposition box on the end of Mirallas’s neat pass but smashed a left-foot shot off the outside of the post.
Sensing blood, Everton remained on the offensive, though, and doubled their lead with fine goal just three minutes after that. Baines was again the provider with a low ball that this time he delivered behind Lukaku where Mirallas took one touch to hold off his marker before lashing it past his compatriot in the Chelsea goal to make it 2-0.
Unfortunately, the second goal had the effect of stirring the hornet’s nest and Hiddink’s men responded strongly with a series of raids down the Blues’ right targeting the perceived weak link of Oviedo playing out of position at right back. Cesc Fabregas’s looping flick was pawed away by Howard and Phil Jagielka blocked a shot from Willian as Chelsea pressed but it was a more agricultural route and another blunder by the American that yielded the hosts’ first goal.
Fabregas lofted a ball over Jagielka’s head that was almost impossible to defend for the Everton skipper as it bounced beyond him and Diego Costa took advantage with a well-time shoulder barge to knock the defender off his stride. Howard had hared beyond his 18-yard box but missed the ball completely as the striker prodded it through his legs and Costa had the simple task of banging it into the empty net.
Less than two minutes later, it was 2-2 as the Blues lost their composure and fell into disarray. Twice they gifted Chelsea possession from the kick off, allowing the home side to build in possession and Fabregas wasn’t tracked as he latched onto Costa’s backheel in the Everton box. Fortune would favour the Spanish midfielder, though, who benefited from a heavy deflection off Muhamed Besic as his shot flew past the helpless Howard.
It was to Everton’s credit, however, that while they went to pieces to a degree in an unsettling period of 15 minutes following the hour mark, during which they lost Oviedo to injury, introduced Ramiro Funes Mori and moved Stones to right back, they were able to keep the score level heading into the final quarter of an hour. It was a close-run thing, though, as Costa passed up a gilt-edged chance served up by CÃ©sar Azpilicueta, mis-kicking in front of goal from six-yards out, while Mirallas spurned a wonderful chance at the other end when put clean through as he fired straight at Courtois.
And then came the drama… Deulofeu, on for Aaron Lennon in a double switch that had also seen Barkley replaced by Steven Pienaar, played one of his sublime, jabbed crosses towards Lukaku but the covering defender knocked it behind. The resulting corner was cleared straight back to the Spanish winger who curled a delicious ball to the back post, where both Lukaku and Funes Mori were lurking, and the Argentine leapt to turn it home almost on the line with the outside of his right boot.
Cue wild celebrations with the Everton fans massed away to the left of goal in which Funes Mori leapt into the first row of seats to be mobbed by jubilant Blues, one of which took his protective headband. Tellingly, however, it would be another minute and 20 seconds before play resumed which, when added to the time to be added for injuries to Oviedo — the Costa Rican was eventually stretchered off — Costa and the various substitutions, would prove crucial almost eight minutes later. Having repelled the Londoners stubbornly in the interim and with their fans whistling desperately for the final whistle, Everton were almost home and dry when the ball was cleared to Deulofeu with 97 minutes and 50 seconds on the clock but his instinct to keep attacking would be his downfall.
Taken in isolation, this was a thrilling game of football decided by a horrendous refereeing decision where Everton were desperately unlucky not to win. They were undone initially by poor defending and a loss of composure that contributed to them giving up another 2-0 lead but, just as at the Vitality Stadium, having regained the lead they simply had to see the game out. As has been the case on far too many occasions this season, they couldn’t and it cost them two more important points.
And therein lies the rub: As heartbreaking as the result was and as much as the sense of injustice burns, this game can't be taken in isolation. It represents the latest instance of a litany of dropped points and another of a dwindling number of opportunities missed to start bridging the points gap to top the four. The Champions League may have been a fanciful notion to some Evertonians this term but where there was opportunity, there was hope — hope that was strengthened somewhat by what appeared to be a more balanced approach by Martinez since the New Year.
Those few swallows have yet to make a summer, however. There was a feeling that had Ramiro Funes Mori’s goal proved to be the winner, it could have been a real catalyst for the second half of Everton’s season. By the same token, there was a nagging sense that it might have papered over the cracks a little and perhaps masked uncertainty both over Martinez’s ability to manage games from winning positions and his idealistic aversion to running the clock down to preserve a win.
The upshot is that we are still waiting for concrete evidence of progress under this manager while we face the reality that European qualification looks beyond a team that has won just six games out of 22 so far. Hope springs eternal where the cups are concerned and that may prove to be the lifeline in terms of time Martinez needs to continue into next season, but another mid-table finish in the Premier League with the amount talent he has assembled in this squad would only leave question marks over his ability to take Everton forward.