That Roberto Martinez has put his neck on the block to such an extent with regard to Tim Howard has, depending on your point of view, either been the epitome of faith or extreme managerial folly but the American vindicated his manager's decision to reinstate him to the team in the face of mounting crticism with a stellar display at the Etihad Stadium.
In concert with a captain's performance by the returning Phil Jagielka, indefatigable work by Ramiro Funes Mori and Leighton Baines and tireless patrolling by the likes of Gareth Barry and Muhamed Besic in front of them, Howard kept the Premier League's most prolific attack at bay as Everton earned a hugely creditable 0-0 draw.
It's a result that will probably prove more useful in terms of psychology for the second leg of the Capital One Cup than Everton's derailed charge for the top four a single point does us little good at this stage. Results on the League front may yet prove that the eight-point gap to the Champions League qualifying places is surmountable by a side that has won as many cup ties as Premier League fixtures but tonight's was a performance and a score that the Blues would grab with both hands in a fortnight's time.
It was a close-run thing, though, and the extent to which Martinez's men had to rely on the resilience of their defence, the reactions of their goalkeeper and the lenience of referee Roger East at the death made for an uncomfortable ride in the second period for those supporters who actually made it into the ground despite horrendous conditions on the M62. John Stones's rash slide on Raheem Sterling as he made for the byline in stoppage time was almost a very costly one but the match official waved away pleas from the City players that the Everton man had taken the winger's legs.
Television replays would show that he clearly had but when weighed against the decision by Mark Clattenburg to penalise Stones for a similar challenge at the same point of the match against Stoke City at the end of December it was a quick evening out of such matters. Moreover, it went a small way to making up for the fact that City have beaten Everton at their place with the help of ridiculously soft penalties not to mention those not given in Everton's favour in each of the last three seasons. Let's just say it was a pleasant change in circumstances...
The second half may have been more or less one-way traffic until the home side seemed to run out of steam a bit in the last 10 minutes in truth, both sets of players were looking pretty leggy by that stage but the first had been hugely promising for Everton, not least during a 10-minute purple patch around the half-hour mark when Leon Osman came within inches of scoring a quite spectacular opener.
The midfielder, playing in the left-sided role in place of the injured Tom Cleverley, displayed wonderful technique by latching onto Romelu Lukaku's excellent clipped cross with a crisply-hit volley that flew inches wide of the far post. It would have been a stunning goal and a reward for the controlled way in which Martinez's side had gone about their business in the first 45 minutes.
Earlier, the teams had traded blows when Kevin de Bruyne stole in behind the Blues' defence but shot wide and Howard did brilliantly to push Yaya Toure's close-range, downward header away, while Gerard Deulofeu made two trademark bursts along the byline but was foiled by on both occasions by Joe Hart's out-stretched leg.
And though City stepped up their efforts as half-time approached, there was little to choose between the sides in terms of goal threat. De Bruyne easily ghosted around Stones, who had mixed evening as an emergency right back in Seamus Coleman's absence, but couldn't pick out a teammate in the middle and at the other end Lukaku accelerated away from Martin Demichelis but fired his right-footed shot from the angle narrowly over the crossbar.
Though Everton's early forays forward early in the second period suggested that the pattern established in the first might continue, Pellegrini's men soon established control of the contest. Lukaku had a shot blocked shortly after the restart while Stones was down at the other end of the pitch with a knock that looked certain to require his withdrawal from the game he was able to continue following treatment but it rapidly became one-way traffic towards Howard's goal.
Jesus Navas dragged a shot well wide in the 52nd minute, Stones let Sterling in when he allowed himself to be dispossessed near the touchline but wasn't punished and the centre-half then atoned a few minutes later by getting enough on a goalbound shot by the same player to allow Howard to safely gather. And when Sergio Aguero connected with one of City's 12 corners on the night in the 69th minute, the Everton 'keeper had to be alert again with a reflex save to bat the ball away off his goal line.
Indeed, that spell midway through the second half would be a busy one for the US international. Twice he intervened with crucial saves with his foot and then he came off his line quickly to save smartly from Aguero again as the Argentine bore down on his goal.
What few chances the Blues had going forward themselves to relieve some of the pressure were largely squandered by poor distributon or a wayward final ball and when Martinez moved to freshen things up a little by withdrawing the veteran Osman and the now ineffectual Deulofeu, his replacements appeared to be a nod towards ball-retention rather than pace or counter-attacking ability that could pick the hosts off on the break.
The introduction of Steven Pienaar to bolster the left alongside Baines and Arouna Kone up front did help the ball stick a little better and it meant that Everton now looked more productive down their left but when Lukaku was played in one last time on his favoured left foot, his shot was deflected behind by Demichelis for a corner. City, meanwhile still threatened, with Navas heading over from near the penalty spot and Aguero battling his through before being forced wide by Jagielka and clipping his shot over from an almost impossible angle but it was Stones's error with time ticking down that almost broke the Blues' stubborn resistance. Thankfully, he was not punished.
Having shipped a glut of goals at home either side of Christmas, Everton's greater emphasis on defensive solidity means they have now conceded just two since the turn of the year in four matches in all competitions. It has come at the expense somewhat of some of their attacking freedom (even if this wasn't a typical park-the-bus scenario) and, as a result, they've also only scored five (with two those coming against League Two Dagenham & Redbridge in the FA Cup).
The return to an almost Moyesian posture to stop the rot at the back as badly needed; the challenge now, of course, is to find the delicate balance between defence and attack so that the side can push on and get the victories they need on all fronts between now and May. As teams with genuine top-four aspirations continue to drop points or trade them amongst each other, the door still remains ajar for the Blues if they can get their act together.
It remains a big "if", though, particularly if injuries continue to disrupt a squad that is, in the eyes of the manager, in need of pruning but which is also still vulnerable in key areas, most glaringly at fullback, left midfield and up front. Martinez has hinted at a possible signing or two before the transfer deadline and Evertonians will retain their hopes that a real difference-maker can be acquired but past experience suggests they're desires that are likely to go unsated.
Everything that could have gone wrong...
Back in mid-December I was told our company AGM was to take place on Tuesday 5th January, neatly sidestepping our home Capital One Cup fixture against Manchester City. With this being the case I, and a few others decided to book tickets for the away Manchester City league game, thinking a quick getaway from work would be in order and then a dart down the M56. I was gutted then when I come back to work after a few festive days off for my boss to tell me the AGM had been switched...to Wednesday 13th January. A clash with our game through no fault of my own.
Still there was hope. My Operations Manager (not quite my boss but almost my boss) told me it would be fine to sneak out of the meeting a little early and I was given a "5:30pm at the VERY latest" promise. I was gutted and pretty angry then when at about 1:30pm today my boss (my real boss) told me in no uncertain terms that there was no way I could leave the meeting early, and that the meeting would finish at 6pm. "You'll make kick off" he said unconvincingly. I knew I had no chance.
In the meantime I was very grateful to Gaz, Gary and Sue for all getting together and waiting at the pub next to the meeting venue. I finally escaped at around 6pm and we made great progress right up the M56 until I saw a sign "30 MINUTE DELAY JUNCTION 6-3". I meekly advised Gaz to get off the motorway and go onto the M6 and I regret not being more forceful in my recommendation. I know the M56 too well and if the sign says delays it's no bluff. We got stuck in monster congestion as the time ticked on.
Reading various tweets, it emerged supporters from both Everton and Manchester City were stuck in traffic on the M62 and M56. Even the trams were down. One report even mentioned that the Eveerton team bus had still not even made it to the Etihad Stadium as kick off neared. Other reports suggested hardly anyone was inside the ground. It felt as though the game might well be delayed at one point but this wasn't the case and stuck in traffic, the game kicked off. Gaz's radio was bust so we couldn't even listen to it. Meanwhile, we finally got to the stadium - or at least where the Sat Nav felt the stadium was - only to find it was the wrong place, so we followed Google Maps the rest of the way (thanks Manchester City by the way, for having incorrect location details on the website).
We finally, finally, arrived at the Etihad and into the stadium with around 35 minutes played and the score 0-0. We got to our seats for a couple of minutes but tired, thirsty, hungry, and in need of a comfort break, we just headed back down again for half time refreshments, effectively writing off the first half.
Despite the score goalless, I quite enjoyed the second half. It was a very resilient rearguard effort from Everton, and with just a bit of composure in the final third we might just have sneaked a winner but it wasn't to be. From all accounts Manchester City should have had a great chance to steal it at the death when John Stones brought down Raheem Sterling inside the penalty area, but thankfully Roger East pointed for a goal kick when it looked for all the world that he had pointed to the penalty spot. We all breathed a sigh of relief...and then jeered the Man City fans.
Otherwise, Tim Howard, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar rolled back the years somewhat and it was great to see Phil Jagielka back as if he'd never been away. John Stones showed what a big miss Seamus Coleman is when he's not in the team and the 'Three B's' in the middle of Barry, Besic, and Barkley all complimented each other nicely. Romelu Lukaku didn't quite seem fit but we knew that going into the game. From a negative point of view, Roberto Martinez still drives you mad with substitutions (Kone instead of Mirallas?), and even with Leighton Baines back in the team, we still can't deliver a set-piece.
Coming home was much, much easier that going to the ground and I was home by 11.30pm (kudos to Gaz for the driving). I won't rate the players based on half a game, but from what I saw Tim Howard had to be man of the match. I was pleased for him given the flack he's endured and hope he can keep it up. Outfield I would say Barkley or maybe Besic were the pick of the bunch, though Phil Jagielka's steadying influence can't be understated.
The final word goes to the lack of kick-off delay as with Everton barely making kick off and the stadium barely even half full apparently, with so many stuck getting to the game, surely a kick-off delay would have been the sensible option. Sadly, and this is one of the things which has sucked the soul out of modern football, I doubt the decision lay in the hands of either of the two clubs or even the match official. With an international audience now, and global TV commitments, I imagine the Premier League are more concerned with that than the man on the street paying οΏ½42 per ticket.
The game is in a bit of a sad state but we keep on coming, and back I'll come to the Etihad in a fortnight for the Capital One Cup semi final.
Now that night definitely won't clash with a meeting.
Everton may have one foot tantalisingly hovering over Wembley Way ahead of the much-aniticipated return leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Manchester City later this month but, as Roberto Martinez acknowledged this time last week, it's in the bread-and-butter Premier League that the greater long-term riches lie.
Thanks, of course, to the series of disappointing results between Bournemouth away in late November and the Stoke defeat at the end of last year, the Toffees find themselves a fair way off the top-four berth for which they're striving and they now face two of the most difficult fixtures on their calendar, starting with a dress rehearsal for that second leg at the Etihad Stadium. Needing to start putting a run of victories together Martinez's side haven't managed to win successive League games yet this season Everton face City and then seemingly rejuvenated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the space of four days this week.
When Romelu Lukaku limped out of the first leg, many Evertonians feared they would have to face those two daunting-looking games without their leading scorer but the manager has indicated and reiterated, somewhat unconvincingly it must be said, this morning that the Belgian should be fit to face City, potentially postponing the dreaded question of "what do Everton do without Lukaku?" Arouna Kone, the only other experienced striker on the books not on the brink of joining Norwich City, may have scored only his seventh goal in Everton colours in the FA Cup against Dagenham & Redbridge on Saturday but overall his was not a performance that would have convinced many that he could be a regular source of goals in Lukaku's stead.
Ramiro Funes Mori, who came off against the Daggers with a gashed head and required 10 stitches, should be fine to play if needed and Leighton Baines is expected to return at left back. Tom Cleverley and Seamus Coleman, both of who also hobbled out of the first leg, are unlikely to be as fortunate. The Irish fullback is ruled out until at least the home game against Swansea in 12 days' time, while Cleverley, having been forced to come off early in two games since his match-winning heroics at Newcastle on Boxing Day, is rated as "50-50" by Martinez but could be rested for one more game to allow his calf injury to properly heal.
Given that the Blues have no natural cover at right back, Coleman's absence is, theoretically, the more problematic of the two but Bryan Oviedo acquitted himself well there in the FA Cup at the weekend (albeit against League Two opposition) and is probably the most likely to fill the role again this time. Tony Hibbert has been unable to maintain fitness for many months, Mason Holgate is untried and carrying a knock, Matthew Pennington is similarly green at senior level and Martinez has already stated that he does not see pulling a first-choice centre half in the form of John Stones or Phil Jagielka out of their primary position. In goal, the manager has hinted that Tim Howard will retake his spot as first-choice goalkeeper.
With Cleverley a doubt, James McCarthy injured, Steven Pienaar just back to fitness, Darron Gibson potentially the subject of a loan move this month, Kone less fancied as an option away from home and Martinez reluctant to deploy two wingers, who fills the slot on the left side of midfield is perhaps the biggest question mark ahead of this game. Does the manager go for another central midfielder like Gibson (he looked rusty on Saturday), deploy two wide players but instruct Aaron Lennon to be mindful of his defensive duties, or go for a more attacking option that risks exposing Baines at left back without cover?
Meanwhile, Manuel Pellegrini, who has seen his side win their all of their last five home games in all competitons, was likely to make changes from the side with which he started at Goodison a week ago, with players like Raheem Sterling and Aleksander Kolarov candidates to retake their places in the starting XI. Wilfried Bony, Smair Nasri and Vincent Kompany are major doubts and unlikely to feature and the Chilean will be forced into further alterations with Eliaquim Mangala and Fernandinho ruled out.
Where ordinarily a draw from the next two games would be considered good results for Everton, their failings against lesser teams in the first half of the campaign you could throw the fairly meek 2-0 defeat in the reverse fixture against City back in August in there as well mean that they are going to need to pull some spectacular results out of somewhere if the top four isn't to an unattainable and unrealistic dream for another year, even in this most unpredictable of seasons.
It's not beyond the realms of possibility. Liverpool, whose results have been chequered since, showed the way when they blitzed Pellegrini's men with a first-half display of relentless pressing and clinical finishing back in November on the way to a surpise 4-1 win. Everton have been a bit more circumspect in their last two games against top-flight opposition as they've tried to tighten up defensively so coming out of the traps like that might not be something Martinez would consider but it at least shows that City can be got at and unsettled.
Kick off: 7.45pm
Referee: Roger East
Predicted line-up: Howard, Oviedo, Stones, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, Besic, Lennon, Barkley, Kone, Lukaku