When Everton were handed what was, on paper, the most diffcult route to the Capital One Cup Final in the draw for the last four, the obvious feeling was that they had to win the first leg at home to have the best chance of negotiating their way past Manchester City. Thanks to an impressive performance that blended patience, tenacity, skill, organisation and a heavy dose of character the Blues will take a slender but precious lead to the Etihad in three weeks' time.
The sight of Romelu Lukaku limping heavily away in celebration may take some of the elation out of watching clips of what proved to be the winning goal on the night a simple but emphatic close-range header by the Belgian off Gareth Barry's peach of a cross over and over but Roberto Martinez's belief that he didn't suffer anything serious means that there will be quiet anticipation among Evertonians that the team can see the job through in the second leg.
All three of Martinez, Barry and Phil Jagielka not to mention the back office who had adorned the large sign on the side of the Main Stand with some classic cup moments from Everton's past had done their bit in the media and matchday programme to build up the atmosphere before the game and Goodison Park didn't disappoint, particularly once the Blues had begun to get a grip on the game in the second half of the first period and the possibility of a first home win at the Grand Old Lady since November emerged.
If there was a final piece to that pre-match jigsaw, one that might ensure a bear pit-esque reception for Manchester City, it came with the announcement of Martinez's starting XI which, with Joel Robles in goal, Gerard Deulofeu on the right and Muhamed Besic in the centre, met most Evertonian expectations given the personnel available. Substitute, perhaps, a fit Jagielka for Ramiro Funes Mori and an in-form Kevin Mirallas for Tom Cleverley and he might have satisifed the vast majority but this was, arguably, the ideal meld of the pragmatic with the artful, the defensive imperative weighed against the Blues' attacking instincts.
And yet, it was Funes Mori, a player over whom a few questions marks have been raised in recent weeks as the gloss appeared to come off his surprisingly easy transition to life in the Premier League, who was in the right place and the right time to turn home the opening goal on the stroke of half time after Everton had had two goals correctly chalked off for offside. Looking more assured in a back line that, as was the case against Tottenham on Sunday, held its shape and appeared more disciplined that in previous matches, the Argentine was excellent on the night and his second goal for the club provided the perfect platform for the second half.
The 24-year-old was not alone in impressing. Indeed, there wasn't a player in royal blue who didn't rise to the challenge of meeting the League Cup favourites, but the midfeld linchpin formed by Barry's partnership with Besic was integral to Everton's victory. Both were imperious in the Blues' engine room the veteran Englishman constantly moving, breaking up City's attempts to knit together their trademark passing moves; the combustible young Bosnian firing on adrenaline and a new lease on life following his injury frustrations, chasing, tackling, probing forward, laying off intelligent passes, and even pirouetting his way elegantly past a clutch of flourescent City jerseys in the centre circle at one point before starting another attack.
The start was slow as both teams sparred in the early stages without really landing any punches and the Blues tried to find their passing range and accuracy. City had the better of the first 20-odd minutes with a few slick moves aimed at releasing David Silva or Sergio Aguero into the danger zone but they were comfortably dealt with. Everton, meanwhile, began to assert themselves as the half wore on, forcing a corner and a couple of free kicks in dangerous areas, one of which ended with John Stones converting Barry's header back across goal, only to have his effort ruled out for offside 10 minutes before the break.
The danger posed by the expert marksman Aguero was ever present but the hosts largely managed to keep him at arm's length in the first half, until he popped up in the box and was foiled first by Stones's lunging block and then Robles's parrying save from the Argentina striker's snapshot. Leighton Baines had the chance to mop up as the ball fell to him but he sliced it straight back to Aguero and was saved by Funes Mori who stopped what was a tamer effort near the goal line.
The half was heading towards an acceptably goalless conclusion when Everton scored in stoppage time. Cleverley's corner from the right skipped through to Ross Barkley on the edge of the area and he drilled a terrific shot on goal that Willy Caballero did well to parry. It fell straight to the alert Funes Mori, however, and fired it past the goalkeeper before tearing away to execute a gleeful celebratory knee-slide.
So far, so great, but Martinez's gameplan suffered a potential dent at the interval when Cleverley was unable to continue into the second half with a recurrence of a calf injury. He was replaced by Leon Osman without too much disruption or real diminishment of the energy in midfield. Indeed, Everton retained a foot on the pedal in the first quarter of an hour after half time, their attacking intent underscored by a succession of offside calls against them in the final third, a Besic drive from distance that was wel gathered by Caballero and an awkward Deulofeu cross that the goalkeeper had to bat away from danger.
Later in the half, Barkley out-muscled Nicolas Otamemdi superbly and forced a good save by his near post from Caballero with a shot from the angle before dancing his way past two or three defenders but then being denied at the last by the goalie's dive at his feet.
In between, however, Manuel Pellegrini's men had offered intermitten reminders of how delicately the tie was poised at 1-0 and Aguero had Evertonian hearts in their mouths when he swung at a loose ball in front of goal but, improbably given his talent, sliced it high and wide of Robles's goal. Silva than released the forward down the channel but Aguero was well tracked by Baines and Funes Mori, the latter blocking his shot behind for a corner. And Robles pulled off his finest moment of the night with 20 minutes left with a sprawling one-handed save to deny Kevin de Bruyne.
City did level, though, a few minutes later when they expertly picked the Blues off on a counter-attack following a corner. Kevin Mirallas, recently on for Deulofeu who had provided energy and plenty of running but failed to impact the game where it really mattered, was dispossessed inside the visitors' box and a ball forward sent Aguero away with Coleman and Besic in pursuit. He turned the Irishman easily, committed Besic as well and then waited for Jesus Navas to arrive before sliding him in to sweep a left-footed shot past Robles and into the far corner.
Everton have lacked composure at times this season but they have rarely been short of character when needing to respind to conceding goals and, true to form, they had responded quickly and incisively within two minutes, eradicating any notion that City had turned the tide in the way they did at Watford at the weekend. The ball was worked from Mirallas on the right flank through Besic and Baines to the left and when his pass was laid off by Barkley, Barry curled in an inch-perfect ball for Lukaku to nod firmly home to send Goodison back into rapture.
He would be replaced by Arouna Kone after trying to run off an ankle knock he had picked a minute or so before his goal and he was qiuckly followed into the bench by Coleman who suffered what turned out to be a calf injury, one that left Everton to play out the final seven-plus minutes with 10 men, Martinez having used all his permitted substitutes by that stage. The manager had called this week for more maturity from his players in closing out matches from winning positions and it was to their credit that the Blues did so so effectively with depleted numbers.
That capped what was a laudibly composed and effective performance from an Everton side that looks like it has come of age since its humbling by Stoke at the end of last year. The likes of Silva, Yaya Toure and, to a lesser extent, De Bruyne, have attracted much criticism for their subdued display but huge credit must go to the Blues for hustling them out of their stride and refusing to allow them to play.
Martinez will feel he actually indicated as much in a post-match interview that his team might have scored more with a bit more nous in the final third and the late loss of Coleman might have tempered Everton's ability and daring to go in search of a third goal but, as it stands, they're well positioned heading into the second leg where an away goal of their own would only enhance their prospects of making their first Wembley final in seven years.
Brilliant Everton edge closer to silverware
Arriving at the busy pub, Ste and I simply didn't know what to think about how the game was going to go, our only rather negative prediction being that we couldn't keep Manchester CIty out for the whole game. Well, that we didn't, but we were treated to a performance so encouraging that you really have to wonder how we are not riding much, much higher in the Premier League.
Still, the night was about the Capital One cup semi-final first leg fixture against Manchester City, a really tough task though we all felt more optimistic when we saw the team news in the pub, with Everton starting with the team that finished against Tottenham Hotspurs, on the outfield at least, whilst Joel Robles replaced Tim Howard in goal. With everybody happy with the team, on we went to the ground, the atmosphere strangely subdued, only noisy Manchester City fans in voice.
I wasn't exactly inspired with confidence when I watched Joel Robles head out onto the pitch with his teammates and almost fall over one of the junior mascots whilst he applauded the crowd. The teams readied up, Robert Madley, the best referee I've seen for some time, got the game under way as Everton attacked towards the Park End in the first half. Well I say attacked, the first 10 minutes were dominated by Manchester CIty as Everton struggled to live with the visitors, though we did generally have them at arms length I would suggest, though I also got the impression Manchester CIty had it in them to raise it a gear or two.
Still, Everton patiently got into the game and managed to get on the front foot, and, by half time, Manchester City had only really created two meaningful opportunities. One when Sergio Aguero just about evaded John Stones and got his shot away, with Robles slapping it out. The rebound was only half -cleared but thankfully came to nothing. The other opportunity came when Nicolas Otamendi headed just wide from a corner kick.
At the other end, Everton built pressure and had the ball in the Manchester City net on three separate occasions in the first half, though two were chalked off for offside, the first when John Stones wellied home a Gareth Barry knock-down, and the second when Romelu Lukaku finished though even from the Gwladys Street, this looked offside. It was actually a bit of a surprise that the third goal wasn't disallowed for offside also as there was nobody within yards of unlikely hero Funes Mores when he put the ball in the net but the goal stood and Everton went into the break a goal to the good.
Leon Osman replaced the presumably injured Tom Cleverley at the break with Manchester City also making a change with Martin Demichelis replacing Eliaquim Mangala. With us a goal to the good I felt the Leon Osman substitution to be a sensible one and so it proved with a very astute display from our veteran midfielder. It was credit to Everton that we began the second half on the front foot and tried to double our money early in the second half with the crowd in good voice.
Despite our best efforts, the goal wouldn't quite come and it was always the danger that Manchester City might catch us on the counter-attack, and so it proved when Sergio Aguero surged forward and played a perfect pass in to Jesus Navas who finished well. Navas - isn't he widely mocked in some football quarters for his lack of contribution at Manchester City with just four goals in 83 matches? Typical then that he scores against us. Prior to that Robles had saved well from De Bruyne...I thought that was in the back of the net.
Luckily enough we were back in front before long when a fantastic delivery from Gareth Barry was met by the by-this-point injured Romelu Lukaku who headed in unmarked. You somehow knew he would have something to say in this game. The atmosphere electric. This was Lukaku's last contribution in the game as he limped off for Everton to make their third substitute of the evening. Roberto Martinez is often maligned for not using all his substitutions, so wasn't it just his luck that one of the few times he does, that we lose Seamus Coleman to injury and have to see the game out with 10 men. Thankfully we were brilliantly composed during this period and saw the game out hassle free. The applause that greeted the team at full time was fantastic and richly deserved.
We head to the Etihad knowing what we have to do, and what a chance to get to Wembley. What a chance to win a trophy. Bring it home Everton. It's been far too long.
Robles: Saved what he had to though with precious little balls played into the penalty area he didn't have the opportunity to command his penalty area as many are crying out for Tim Howard to do. Hard to fault him based on saves made though and he had no chance with the Manchester CIty goal. 7
Baines: A very good display of endeavour, defensive solidarity and attacking flair. Great to see him back at something like his best. 8
Funes Mori: A very good defensive display and a crucial goal. Well played. 8
Stones: Had a shaky start to the game with some aimless passes but he settled eventually and had a good, solid game. 7
Coleman: His season has been frustratingly stop-start. It seems that just when he's getting back to his best he gets another injury. Unfortunately he again had to limp off in this one. He can at least get a rest at the weekend, and fingers crossed it's nothing too serious and he can be back quickly. Had a good game otherwise. 7
Barry: My man of the match. An exemplary display from our captain and he will have enjoyed getting one over on his former club, particularly Manuel Pellegrini whom deemed him surplus to requirements at Manchester City. 9
Besic: Also brilliant, especially in the first half. His combination of tenacity and skill is a joy to behold and we have some player on our hands there. 9
Cleverley: Had a steady first half before substituted, presumably injured. 6
Deulofeu: Worked hard first half though was evidently exhausted come 68 minutes when he was substituted for Kevin Mirallas. 6
Barkley: Very good. Has progressed extremely well this season. Playing regularly in a settled position has probably helped. Is maturing well. 7
Lukaku: Not his busiest of games as he may have been carrying a knock but he still got on the scoresheet. He can probably have the weekend off now and rest up. What a season he is having. 7
Osman (for Cleverley): Great to see him play and he did well on the left hand side. Maybe Leon Osman has something left to give this season yet...maybe even a well-deserved trophy to cap off his years of service at Everton. 7
Mirallas (For Deulofeu): Got involved. Should get more minutes on Saturday. 7
Kone (for Lukaku): Was difficult for him to make an impact as soon after coming on we were down to 10 men. Should get more game time on Saturday. 6
Everton begin their two-legged League Cup semi-final tomorrow against Manchester City hoping to build the platform from which they can progress to the club's first Wembley final in seven years.
Having overcome Middlesbrough in the previous round, the Blues were handed arguably the most difficult scenario possible in the last four when they drew the highest-placed team left in the competition, with the home tie first. That puts the onus on Roberto Martinez's side to jump out to an early aggregate lead with a strong performance at Goodison Park where they haven't won since 21st November.
With Martinez expressing his satisfaction with his side's performance against Tottenham, it would not a surprise to see him play this one safe to a degree in the first half and again set the team out to be more defensive. The formation will probably be the same regardless but Muhamed Besic's transformative appearance as a substitute on Sunday made a strong case for his inclusion from the start, either in the left sided role in which he was deployed against Chelsea in September (before he succumbed to injury) or alongside Gareth Barry with Tom Cleverley moved over to the left. That would edge Arouna Kone onto the bench which is probably overdue the Ivorian has become increasingly ineffective in recent matches.
Given the choice, many Evertonians would prefer to see Kevin Mirallas handed a start over using another player out of position on the left but if, as expected, Gerard Deulofeu or Aaron Lennon are named on the team sheet, Martinez is unlikely to go with two wingers. The Belgian has been given playing time in the earlier rounds of the Capital One Cup this season but with the pressure mounting on the manager's shoulders in the wake of some poor results in the Premier League, caution could well win the day, at least at the beginning of the match.
At the back, Phil Jagielka's influence has been sorely missed but Martinez has already confirmed that he won't be fit enough to return, so it will be John Stones and Ramiro Funes Mori at centre half, with Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines as the fullbacks, assuming the latter doesn't need to rest after playing the full 90 minutes on Sunday. Joel Robles should get the nod as the designated "cup keeper" in goal.
Ordinarily, a straight do-or-die knockout cup tie where anything can happen would make for a much more level the playing field but the two-legged format complicates Everton's task here. As the stronger side, City surely have the luxury of just needing to avoid defeat in the first leg and then getting the Toffees back to Etihad where an Everton side hasn't won in six years.
The reverse is true for the Toffees you've got to believe we have to take some sort of lead into the second leg to stand a chance of making the final, so unless we make a fast start and get Manuel Pellegrini's side on the rack early on, it will probably be a case of biding our time, keeping it tight and then hoping to score in the second half. Regardless, the long dormant Goodison bear pit atmosphere would be a useful ally if the crowd can get onside.
Whatever happens, the keys to success for Martinez and his man will be to shackle the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure, two players who have picked us apart in previous meetings, and then deny the deadly Sergio Aguero the space he thrives on to score goals. With the form Lukaku is in this season, Everton always know they've got a great chance of scoring goals in that respect Vincent Kompany's absence is probably the best news we could have hoped for so if they can keep it tight at the back, the Blues know they can score against anyone when they're in the mood.
Everton fans have been doing their best to try and put Martinez's record at Wigan out of their minds as the goals have flowed in at the wrong end in recent weeks but it's the Catalan's history with City in an important Cup clash that can provide some comfort. His last act with the Latics was to mastermind victory at Wembley over the Citizens in the 2013 FA Cup Final. If he can repeat the feat over two legs in the League Cup semi-final, he will have taken the Toffees one step further to ending a trophy drought that is now into its third decade.
Predicted line-up: Robles, Coleman, Stones, Funes Mori, Baines, Barry, Besic, Cleverley, Barkley, Deulofeu, Lukaku