Aston Villa 1 - 3 Everton
The story of Everton in 2015-16 might be one of chronic under-achievement so far but a satisfying conclusion remains within reach, thanks largely to their impressive away record, which was further improved with an oddly frustrating yet routine victory over Aston Villa.
Any fears that Remi Garde’s team might prove to be an unexpected banana skin for a side that has shown a penchant for slipping up when in advantageous positions this season were largely extinguished by the half-time break, as an early goal by Ramiro Funes Mori and a second from Aaron Lennon had the Blues up and cruising by the halfway stage.
That Roberto Martinez’s men didn’t capitalise on the sense of mutiny and utter resignation that rattled around Villa Park and its expanses of empty seats and fill their boots in the second half was down to a curiously anaemic display overall, one punctured by enough moments of class to put their hosts to the sword without ever really getting into full flow.
Villa’s plight is a desperate one and, as Evertonians, we can only be thankful that when we dallied with the top flight’s trapdoor in the mid-1990s, we were in a position on both occasions to have a do-or-die occasion where our supporters could will us over the line on the final day of the season.
Only a miracle looks likely to afford fans of this famous old Midlands club the same opportunity but if they are to get one, Everton made sure it wasn’t to have its origins this evening. It took just five minutes for the Toffees to deepen the gloom on the Holte End— Kevin Mirallas, in the team in place of Tom Cleverley who missed out through illness, swung in a peach of a corner from the left and Funes Mori rose unchallenged to head past Brad Guzan.
The Argentine has gone from raising quizzical looks when he signed for what felt like an uneasily large transfer free in late August to being perhaps the success story for Everton this season and his opening goal and assist that would follow in the second half were a reflection of and reward for a performance that was head and shoulders above his team mates on the night.
That goal, Funes Mori’s fourth in an Everton jersey, should have opened the floodgates but for long spells it felt like, mentally, many of Martinez’s players were still by the pool in Dubai. And the home side almost capitalised. Funes Mori’s attempted tackle-cum-clearance on Gaby Agbonlahor almost cannoned past Joel Robles but the Spaniard was well placed to beat the ball clear.
Robles then had to get down quickly to push a shot from outside the box behind and then momentarily lost his bearings from the resulting corner, looking disturbingly suspect as the ball thankfully evaded the Villa heads hoping to equalise from the dead-ball delivery. From the corner that followed that, Micah Richards despatched an excellent volleyed shot that sailed narrowly past the post.
Everton responded in the best way possible — by doubling their advantage. Ross Barkley, otherwise as anonymous and ineffective as he has been at any point this season, raced forward before sending Kevin Mirallas away down the channel and the Belgian picked out the arriving Lennon near the penalty spot where he side-footed home with aplomb. A fourth goal in six games for the former Spurs man – not bad for a player who could barely get a look in a few weeks ago.
Guzan was again powerless to prevent the goal but he did deny a game-killing third a few minutes later when Mirallas, with two assists under his belt already, went for personal glory and the American ‘keeper spilled his shot before Joleon Lescott cleared Bryan Oviedo’s follow-up off the line.
That third goal did eventually arrive fifteen minutes into a a hitherto uneventful second period, though not before Guzan had pulled off an excellent one-handed save to foil Lukaku. The striker had been the recipient of a pin-point cross from Lennon and looked to have done everything right with a powerful header but the ‘keeper turned it past the post with quick reactions.
It merely delayed the inevitable, however. Guzan managed to fist clear the resulting corner but when it was worked outside to Funes Mori, he had all the time in the world to measure a hard, low centre that Lukaku converted from close range to mark his 17th League goal of the campaign.
A general lack of consistency going forward from the Blues meant that, apart from an injury-time scramble that almost yielded a second goal for Funes Mori but Guzan again denied him, they had few chances to pad the scoreline. Martinez’s decision not to go for the jugular by introducing one or both of Gerard Deulofeu and Oumar Niasse earlier (the Senegal striker did eventually come with a few minutes to go) but instead throw on John Stones in place of Seamus Coleman hadn’t helped the team’s shape but the manager clearly felt that, with the match effectively won, it was better to hand the young defender some minutes by switching to a back three.
Everton’s quest for a fifth clean sheet in six games looked to be heading for success as Phil Jagielka threw himself in the way of Ashley Westwood’s powerful shot and diverted it behind for a corner but, unfortunately, with Oviedo off the field receiving treatment, substitute Rudy Gestede would plunder what proved to be merely a consolation with 11 minutes to go. A deep cross from the right caught Stones and Jagielka somewhat flat-footed in the centre and the tall striker despatched a towering header high into the net to make it 3-1.
Having seen Everton play far better than this and either end up on the losing side or throw away points with annoying draws, griping about what was a fairly uninspiring win would be a little churlish. Securing the three points and avoiding any shock by the division’s worst team was paramount and the Blues did that with room to spare.
Certainly, they will have to perform several levels better on Saturday against West Ham and again against Chelsea the following week in the FA Cup but three points that keep the club within sight of the European places represent a job done well enough.