Manchester City 3 - 1 Everton (4-3 agg)
If hope and passion alone were enough to win silverware, Evertonians wouldn't find themselves drowning their sorrows tonight contemplating the very real possibility that their club's trophy drought will extend to a 22nd year after this season, with little hope on the horizon that it will end any time soon.
A painful exit from the Capital One Cup has left the FA Cup as the sole avenue by which Roberto Martinez can salvage another train-wreck of a season and realise the 'special achievement to which he unconvincingly clung in his post-match interview. â€“
By the official count, 7,300 Blues travelled to Eastlands this evening in the vain belief that Everton's 2-1 lead from the first leg of this semi-final might be enough to carry them through to Wembley next month. In reality, while the hosts struggled to persuade enough of their own supporters to attend, many more Evertonians made the trek, to populate supposedly neutral zones â€“ by some accounts, a few were turfed out during that match â€“ and even brave the home sections at the Etihad Stadium and hopefully witness a performance worthy of shutting down Manuel Pellegrini's attacking machine for the second time this month.
For much of the first half of what was an absorbing match for those neutrals for whom Roberto Martinez's side have been doing so much to entertain this season, it looked as though the travelling fans might get it. Ross Barkley's wonderful solo effort after 17 minutes had extended Everton's aggregate lead to two goals and cancelled out Jesus Navas's away goal from the first leg. And even though City would benefit from a huge slice of fortune six minutes later when Fernandinho's shot deflected off Leighton Baines and flew past the stranded Joel Robles, the Blues were still in the driving seat at 1-1 on the night.
Unfortunately, amid controversy, questionable management and a strengthening tide of Manchester City's offence, Everton buckled in the second half and were meekly despatched into the night having seen that 3-1 aggregate lead transformed into a 4-3 defeat. Three more goals conceded in a season drowning in them, a consequence of the Blues simply being far too open and too easy to play through. Martinez made the "heartbreak" over the scandalous oversight of an obvious goal kick that led to the Citizen's second goal the central theme of his comments after the game but two incidents involving Gerard Deulofeu could equally be cited as turning points in the tie.
One-on-one with Willy Caballero five minutes into the second half, the Spaniard had a gilt-edged chance to hand the Blues a potentially decisive second away goal but he shot too close to the goalkeeper and his effort was beaten away. A few minutes later, his manager made the fatal decision to remove him and throw Arouna Kone on in a double substitution that saw the capable but tiring Leon Osman come off in favour of James McCarthy.
In the absence of any real threat from a still-below-par Romelu Lukaku, Deulofeu was the only player causing City any real concern by that point and the winger's departure from the match appeared to kill any attacking momentum that the visitors had left.
The controversy over the second goal, where the fact that Raheem Sterling had carried the ball over the byline was blatantly obvious in real time let alone with the benefit of television replays, is, sadly, a distraction from the larger issue. Not least because none of the six Blue shirts in the middle of the box were anywhere near the goalscorer, Kevin De Bruyne. Far from going "eye to eye" with one of the best teams in the country as Roberto Martinez claimed after the game, Everton were clearly second best for the majority of this contest – they managed just two shots on goal in 90 minutes and the defence was hanging on for dear life at times either side of the City substitute's strike that made it 2-1 on the night with 20 minutes to go.
Sergio Aguero had hammered an impressive shot off Joel Robles's post, the Spanish 'keeper had somehow got in the way of a shot from the rebound by David Silva in the first half with the score at 1-1 and Silva planted a header off the base of the upright 10 minutes into the second period. That not long after Aguero had uncharacteristically mis-kicked wide another golden chance in front of goal.
So, it was almost inevitable that, with Everton penned back and struggling for an out-ball without Deulofeu's pace in attack, the home side should score twice in six minutes to turn the tie on its head. Sterling's cut-back from behind the byline picked out De Bruyne who swept home from a central position and when no one adequately closed the same player down following a clearance from a corner, the Belgian international curled in a pin-point cross for Aguero, in oceans of space
behind in front of John Stones, had time to steer a firm header past Robles and into the far corner.
That, despite another 14 minutes on the clock and what should have been eight more minutes of stoppage time, was that. There would be no cavalry charge from a blunt Everton attack that made a mockery of its reputation this season as a fearsome weapon and save for a couple of late set pieces, they offered little resistance to the seeming inevitability of their defeat of their Wembley dream.
(If there is a silver lining, of course, it's that the inevitable psychological collapse against Liverpool at Wembley next month has been averted, but with it goes the opportunity to finally address a mentality of inferiority and a lack of fortitude that appears to pervade the club nowadays.)
Given the massive sums of money spent on their side â€“ they were, after all, able to bring a world-class talent like De Bruyne off the bench â€“ you would expect Manchester City to be as superior as they were overall, particularly in the second half. Still, the contention from Martinez and some of this players that this Everton side can beat anyone on their day rings hollow now, though, despite their efforts in the first leg.
Equally, the manager's lament at misfortune and poor officiating â€“ however valid on yet another occasion â€“ would wash if they weren't a mere part of an established trend of poor results, mistakes and blown leads that stretches back a full 18 months under Martinez. The statistics of just 18 wins from 61 matches over the past two seasons, 110 goals conceded in the same period, under-achievement from a talented and much-lauded squad, and a now obvious regression in Premier League performance tell their own story.
Put bluntly, Everton under Martinez are simply not as good as either he or they think they are and the gathering signs are that they never will be under his stewardship. The potential is there but the same refrain from the manager regarding a young side that is "getting close to being a winning team" is getting old. He has had ample time to demonstrate that he has the answers to a worsening defensive record and a succession of unacceptable results but the grim realisation now is that he has taken our club as far as he can. Whether there is any appetite â€“ or capacity, for that matter â€“ at boardroom level to make the decision to replace him in the face of that deteriorating record, however, remains to be seen.