Everton 1 - 2 Manchester United
In Roberto Martinezâ€™s own words, this week, with its two massive games, promised to be a â€œdefining weekâ€ for him and his players: A Merseyside derby that Everton dared not lose and an FA Cup semi-final that offered the only remaining route to redemption in a season that has very much followed the route to disappointment trodden by the last.
A â€œpivotal weekâ€ is probably closer to what he intended to say but his comments ended up being unfortunately prescient â€” humiliation on the back of defensive vulnerability and suspect mentality at the hands of Liverpool, the giving up of an injury time goal at Wembley to Manchester United, and failure just when a crack at glory were in his teamâ€™s hands have, sadly, come to define the Catalanâ€™s tenure.
After Wednesdayâ€™s galling collapse at Anfield, Martinez needed a big performance and the kind of backs-against-the-wall underdog spirit that lifted Everton teams of the past over United at Wembley in 1995 and 2012. He eventually got something akin to it, whether by his own powers of motivation or, perhaps more likely, through a response from the players to the desperation pouring out of stands from 30-odd thousand Evertonians and the realisation that their entire season was circling the drain.
Following 45 minutes of tentative, defensive football that was lacking cohesion and organisation and during which time they fell behind to Maroune Fellainiâ€™s 34th-minute goal, the Blues suddenly discovered the intensity and drive that has been wholly lacking through a run of what is now seven games without a win in all competitions and had Louis van Gaalâ€™s Red Devils on the ropes at times in the second half.
It yielded a penalty, won by the otherwise disappointing Ross Barkley when he was felled in the box by Tim Fosu-Mensah, that was taken well enough by Romelu Lukaku but saved by David de Gea, a goalkeeper who has made a habit of bringing his best form into meetings with Everton over the past couple of seasons. Then, after Phil Jagielka had denied Fellaini a second goal with an unseen handball almost on the goal-line, Everton levelled and threatened to turn the tie on its head with more pressure but, sadly, it didnâ€™t ultimately tell.
Instead, there was the latest in a succession of stings in the "tale" that Blues fans have had to deal with as Martinezâ€™s defence was sliced open one final time and Anthony Martial swept through the breach to plant a cruel winner beyond Joel Robles.
Little of what Martinez said in the aftermath of another crushing loss will have resonated with fed up Evertonians but he was right that, on balance, Everton probably deserved to get to extra time. Their first-half display had been massively disappointing, an echo of the lifeless and unimaginative fare that has characterised a sequence of three draws and, now, four defeats since that potentially catalytic victory over Chelsea last month.
It would be easier to blame the loss of Seamus Coleman, the need to use Muhamed Besic as an emergency fullback, and Jagielkaâ€™s injury if the second half from Martinezâ€™s side hadnâ€™t been so much better. Jagielka played â€” very effectively it has to be said â€” despite his hamstring strain but Besic was targeted often by the reds down their left and Darron Gibsonâ€™s deployment as a deep-lying defensive midfielder bordering on a third centre-half robbed Everton of numbers going forward.
The Blues ceded the ball and territory to United to an unsettling degree and Van Gaalâ€™s men took up the invitation, playing in Marcus Rashford, foiled by blocks from John Stones and Joel Robles; Fellaini, also foiled by Stones; and Jessie Lingard who was denied brilliantly in a one-on-one by the Everton goalkeeper. All that after Martial had lit the touch paper on an open and entertaining game following a pedestrian opening with a slaloming run with the ball towards goal that he couldnâ€™t convert from a tight angle.
And yet the Bluesâ€™ tactic of trying to catch United cold with a quick ball behind their defence for Lukaku to chase almost paid dividends on two occasions. First, he rounded Daley Blind to latch onto Roblesâ€™ booming kick forward and advance on goal but a heavy touch took him wider of de Gea than he would have liked and his shot into the turf kicked lacked the power to beat Rooney who had tracked all the way back to his goal-line.
Then, on the quarter-hour mark, Cleverley sent him away for another showdown with De Gea but, again, a bobble off his knee took the ball away from him and the angle was too acute by the time he got the shot off and the United keeper saved.
Unfortunately, Besic was ruthlessly exposed for the opening goal, as Rashford accelerated past him to the byline and cut it back to Fellaini to bobble the ball past Robles 11 minutes before half time.
That there was no response from Everton between then and the interval spoke volumes of their performance in that first half but they were a different proposition in the second period, even if they were let down to a degree by their star men.
Lukaku was arguably the biggest reason why the Blues were in the semi-final in the first place given how he almost single-handedly won the quarter final but he came up short just when his team needed him today. And Barkley looked a far cry from the player who had looked earlier in the season like he was back to being the brightest young midfield talent in the country.
The fightback, when it came, wasnâ€™t led by Martinezâ€™s self-proclaimed â€œstyleâ€ of possession-based football; it was a last-ditch effort to raise the tempo by a group of players who were willed on by the masses of Evertonians banked in their thousands around one half of Wembley and elimination from the cup rapidly closing in on them.
Lingard made a mess of a left-shot off Martialâ€™s back-heel 10 minutes after the break but Everton then took control and within a couple more they had the chance to level. Lennon and Barkley caught United short-handed at the back, the winger crossed low and Tim Fosu-Mensah chopped the latter down inside the box. After a momentâ€™s reflection, referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot, Lukaku took responsibility for the kick but De Gea guessed right and palmed it away.
Fans have criticised Everton for their mentality at times this season but their immediate reaction to that set-back could only have been better if it had resulted in an equaliser. Tom Cleverley shanked a chance at the back post well wide and air-kicked another cross from a central position, James McCarthy volleyed into the turf making for a routine save for the â€˜keeper and a magnificent turn by Cleverley to skin his marker ended with a teasing cross that Lukaku headed over, unaware of Besic behind him who was probably better placed to head home from close range.
By the time Gerard Deulofeu was introduced for Lennon with 20 minutes to go, Gibson had dropped almost entirely back alongside Jagielka and Stones was being given license to maraud forward in mostly impressive fashion to help build attacks. It was Deulofeu who made the difference just five minutes after coming on, though, crossing low looking for Lukaku in the middle but prompting Chris Smalling into slicing into his own net instead.
1-1 but Everton werenâ€™t done and they continued to press for a second. Deulofeuâ€™s placed, side-foot shot was a little tame but it nicked off a defender and the keeper almost pushed the ball straight to the feet of Lukaku. The Belgian then failed to make proper contact on a gilt-edged chance as a cross bounced through from the left flank, and one of the Bluesâ€™ best moves of the game ended with Fellaini denying his compatriot with a last-ditch tackle, deflecting Lukakuâ€™s shot behind.
A breathless second half was heading into extra time when United carved Evertonâ€™s tiring defence open one last, decisive time, however. Ander Herrera, on for just a few minutes as a substitute and the recipient of a yellow card straight away for a cynical tug on Barkleyâ€™s jersey, managed to prod the ball through to Martial who did the rest with just the â€˜keeper to beat with less than a minute of stoppage time to go.
In contrast to the manner in which they threw away the initiative in the Capital One Cup semi-final in January, albeit also in controversial circumstances, the â€œvaliant loserâ€ aspect to Evertonâ€™s failure plays right into the â€œunluckyâ€ narrative that will fool some into continuing to back Martinez as Evertonâ€™s manager. The reality is, however, that the team was ultimately undone by its failure to turn up for 50-odd minutes, its consistent failings at the back and the leaking of yet another injury-time goal.
â€œIt comes to a point where we have to achieve and this season is very, very important for that.â€
Those were the words of Martinez in November last year when he first started gathering the rhetorical rope by which he has now hanged himself. This was back when Everton had a League Cup quarter final ahead of them and were about to move back into seventh place with a win over Aston Villa, one of only four they have managed in the Premier League so far this season.
Since then, with every set-back, every blown lead, and every concession of a painful last-minute goal, Martinez has repeated his assertion that the Toffees are â€œvery close to being a winning teamâ€; the rhetoric shifting from insisting that Evertonâ€™s â€œyoungâ€ team had to â€œachieveâ€ this term to a constant readjustment of the timeline. MaÃ±ana, MaÃ±ana. Itâ€™s always just around the corner which is, of course, very convenient if youâ€™re trying to preserve your job.
The Anfield disgrace was the straw that broke the camelâ€™s back. Giving Martinez a shot at redemption with an FA Cup semi-final was either a show of loyalty and integrity, a desperate last shot, an unwillingness to make a hard decision, or simply blind faith on the part of Bill Kenwright and the Everton board. This latest failure should be the absolute final straw for the hierarchy; as painful as it is, the situation calls for ruthlessness with swift action so that the wheels can be set in motion for the next era at Goodison Park with a bolder, higher-profile appointment.
As a tweet from a frustrated supporter implored of the Chairman this evening, does your loyalty lie with one man or the thousands of Blues who deserve better than what they have been put through this season? On the back of a horrible week, crestfallen Evertonians are speaking loudly and in their thousands this evening but is anybody listening?