The wisdom of making wholesale changes to a team for the League Cup has been a frequent subject of debate over the years, not least where Everton goalkeepers are concerned. It was under David Moyes that the widely-deployed selection tactic of a "cup keeper" was brought to Goodison Park and it was his undoing on at least one occasion while Jan Mucha was kicking around Goodison Park.
Last night, the reverse was true – not only were Evertonians comfortable with the idea of nominal "understudy" 'keeper Joel Robles coming in to face Norwich City, after the shambles at the back against Arsenal on Saturday they were positively enthused to see what the Spaniard could do to further his case for an extended run in the first team in the Premier League as well. Not only did Robles prove himself more than capable, he was arguably crucial to the Blues progressing to the quarter finals with a series of fine saves and important guess-work in the penalty shootout that allowed him to foil Wes Hoolahan and heap all the pressure on Nathan Redmond to fire the decisive spot-kick wide.
Job done by the 25-year-old from Getafe, you would think but Roberto Martinez didn't even give Robles the evening to savour his man-of-the-match display; ignoring the recent scrutiny of Tim Howard's increasingly erratic form of late, the manager stated outright after the game that the American would be back in the team on Sunday to face Sunderland.
Martinez is paid to make harsh and unpopular decisions when they are warranted, of course. Derek Mountfield recently recounted his experience in the 1980s when he deputised impressively for the injured Dave Watson only to be dropped back to the bench as soon as Waggy was fit again. Back then, Howard Kendall made a decision for the good of the team to restate one of his best players who had been on top form prior to his injury.
In this instance, however, the manager's rationale appears to be one based on the dressing room status quo and appeasing a veteran player rather than recognising form. Coming as a repeat of the situation last winter when Robles came in and performed well in place of the injured Howard (who was struggling in a noticeable post-World Cup slump) only to be summarily dropped the moment the senior player was fit again, it sets an uneasy precedent and a confusing message for those players bidding to break into the first team.
Of course, Martinez could be forgiven for counting his blessings that the goalkeeping controversy is what fans are talking about after last night rather than an ugly exit from a competition that the Blues should be going hell for leather to win. Call it luck, some sort of manifest destiny in a competition in which they have have always appeared cursed, or the result of having just enough squad depth to get the job done but Everton have yet to put in a convincing display in the Capital One Cup so far this season, much of it down to over-zealous squad rotation.
Three times Roberto Martinez has made significant changes to his starting line-up in the competition and three times he has had to find salvation on his substitute's bench. But where last season his side found humiliation at the first hurdle in Swansea, this morning they find themselves in the quarter finals and two wins from a date under the arch in the Capital.
In the end it required the lottery of penalties to dispose of a Norwich side featuring a number of changes itself but one which nevertheless almost capitalised on what was, on balance, an abysmal Everton performance. It was the first shootout the Toffees have won at Goodison Park since the European Cup tie against Borussia Munchengladbach; somewhat fittingly, given that an illuminated picture of him adorned the side of the stadium in his memory last evening, Howard Kendall scored one of the spot kicks.
It's hard to recall a worst opening 25 minutes to a game from an Everton side. Leon Osman and Darron Gibson betrayed their lack of playing time this season with rusty performances in the first half, Arouna Kone looked curiously lost up front with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas showed only fleeting glimpses of the player he needs to be to regain his own place in the side. Meanwhile, Norwich, themselves featuring seven changes from the weekend, were lively and productive, forcing a succession of corners that had Evertonian hearts in mouths given the team's recent fallibility from set pieces.
And yet, as bad as they were in the opening 45 minutes, the Blues could – and probably should – have gone into half time ahead. Tyias Browning's surging run opened up the visitors' defence for Lukaku but his low, right-foot shot was saved by Declan Rudd and the best passing move from the hosts a few minutes later ended with James McCarthy putting a first-time cros too close to the 'keeper with the Belgian striker lurking in a great position in front of goal.
Everton's vulnerability at set-pieces reared its head again, however, six minutes into the second half. A short corner routine wasn't dealt with and when the ball made its way to the other side of the box and was delivered to the unmarked Sebastien Bassong in the centre, he had the simple task of turning it past Robles from close range.
Like he did at Barnsley and Reading, Martinez turned to his bench for inspiration and found enough of it in the form of Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley to get his side back on level terms with 22 minutes of the regulation 90 to go. The Spanish winger, in particular, helped up the tempo significantly going forward and after the corner he forced was only cleared to Mirallas on the far side, the Belgian sent in a low cross to Osman who scuffed the ball in off the post to make it 1-1.
Both teams had chances to win it in normal time but Lukaku headed a Bryan Oviedo cross narrowly wide at the back post, Osman dragged shot wide and Robles had to be at his best at the other end to push point-blank header over the bar from Lewis Grabban, tip Martin Olsson's shot over and then paw another Grabban effort away.
After Mirallas had squandered a great chance to put Everton ahead in the first half of extra time, the peformance from the home side deteriorated as some of the players without regular playing time this season visibly began to tire. But after Matt Jarvis had gone close with a header at one end, the better opportunities still fell to the Blues as the clock wound down towards penalties; Lukaku did well to stay on his feet as he was wrestled by Bassong but his shot deflected wide and Barkley passed up what looked like a routine square ball for the Belgian to tuck home in the final minute and elected to balloon the ball high over from a tight angle.
The 21-year-old was not made to pay for that moment of over-exuberance, though, and his was one of four perfect Everton penalties in the resulting shootout that the Blues won when Robles dived to his left to smother Hoolahan's kick and Redmond missed trying to ping his penalty into the top corner, much to the relief and delight of the home crowd.
As with any cup game, the important thing is to get through, sometimes by whatever means are necessary. On this occasion, that meant relying on a goalkeeper seizing his chance to shine and finding enough impetus from the substitutes to find a route back into the match, but it's hard to ignore just how bad Everton were at times in this game and how close they came to being dumped out in entirely avoidable circumstances.
The closer we get to Wembley, the more seriously you would hope Martinez takes this competition when it comes to making sweeping personnel changes. But it's the identity of the person in goal where the debate will continue to rage unless the manager's chosen incumbent can get back to his best in short order. The problem for both Howard and manager who has set out his stance is what happens if he doesn't...?
From My Seat: Norwich (League Cup)
We gathered for the cup match and picked the team for tonight but when the official version came through no one had got it right. Eight changes from Arsenal left us wondering if making so many changes would have us playing like strangers or if they could click and push for places on Sunday. The walk up was cheerful enough with the fan zone looking like a medieval encampment as we made our way up Spellow Lane. The fat van was in full swing and by the queues assembled not many are taking much notice of WHO food advice. Over 31,000 of us assembled ready to sing about going to Wem-ber-lee but from the off and for a quarter of an hour it was hard to tell if we had turned up let alone gain a sight of the new arch.
We started slowly and sloppily with Stones slow to react in his own area and Gibson giving the ball away that led to a corner which when swung in it was headed wide but that was a good chance for Norwich. It was mostly all Norwich as we gave the ball away on a regular basis and by the quarter hour we were a tad lucky to still be 0-0. We did have a break and Funes Mori burst forward but instead of laying the ball off he chose to shoot from about 35yds and managed to propel the ball some 35yds over the bar; the reaction it brought from the crowd was a sort of half laugh. You don’t see that often.
In the second quarter hour we had a spell of inventing new ways to give the ball away and allow Norwich to counter. It was hard to understand why we could not do the simple thing of shortening the pass and make sure the man you were passing to was wearing the same colour shirt as yourself. You could sense the crowd getting a bit frustrated. Those first 30-odd minutes certainly belonged to Norwich and many of us wondered if it was the eight changes that had caused this yet they all train together so they should have a better understanding than was being displayed.
At last Browning pinched one and put Lukaku in but he dallied on the ball and that was enough for Norwich to pinch it back. Browning got it again and tried a through ball to our captain for the night Osman but he put far too much pace on it and the ball left Osman behind and shot out for a goal kick to more groans. We had started to put a few attacking moves together thanks to Osman calming things down and getting the ball to intended targets; now if we could get Gibson up and finding his range we might be getting somewhere.
With Osman directing things better now and having a run forward himself forced a hand ball out of Hoolahan, from the kick Gibson at last got his range and a great ball found McCarthy who put in a great cross and with Lukaku racing in ‘Goal’ was in our throats but he just could not make it and slid into the post instead.
Into the final quarter hour of the half and we now looking far better and playing some good joined up stuff in patches but Mirallas is doing himself no favours with his petulance and poor pass choice he was more of an hindrance than a help, you could see why he is not a first pick at the moment, it is like he needs to get his head straight and concentrate. I am sure he has the talent but has his mentality gone? He sort of proved it as he just let his man go allowing Norwich to get into our box and were passing it between them searching for an opening when Funes Mori relieved the pressure by winning a tackle giving away a corner which we cleared. We were passing a bit better now near the end of the half and still a little laboured but we gained a free kick which was swung in and the athletic Mori almost connected. Just one minute added and Norwich attacked and went for it but the move broke down when Osman and Mori intervened as the whistle went.
H/T and the chat was not complimentary. Norwich had most of the pressure and our passing at times was atrocious but at least Osman and Gibson had belatedly improved. Most suggested that Mirallas be subbed for Deulofeu.
Second half and no changes and not our greatest start as once again a ball delivered into our box would undo us. It was a corner that came across and Funes Mori got a defensive header that did not go too far and Osman tried an overhead clearing kick which he mistimed allowing a Norwich man to slide Bassong in and he netted. Another goal from a set piece cross and only six mins in. From the restart we are looking shell shocked and Kone and Mirallas were guilty of poor passing and testing the patience of those assembled and a little booing is heard as yet another pass goes astray.
The hour mark was reached and Barkley and Deulofeu replaced Browning and Kone I think Ossie thought he was coming off as I noticed he taken his captain's armband off and looking who to give it to. After the change it was clear we had gone three at the back with Stones and Funes Mori flanking Gibson. We were looking better now and Deulofeu certainly didn’t want three poor performances on the trot as his application was urgent from the off. We attacked better and spent more time in their box but we still can’t get that end bit just right.
We forced a corner after good work from Osman which Deulofeu took and Lukaku got something on it but it was hacked off the line; so near yet so far but Osman picked up the ball again and Mirallas was fed wide. He puts in a low cross and Osman, like a robber's dog, pounces and scuffed a creeper past a wrong-footed keeper. 1-1 and our captain for the night was well made up as were his backing group, the Street End choristers.
Norwich fought back and Gibson blotted his copybook as sloppy play handed the ball to the opponent and but for some good defence by Funes Mori we somehow avoided conceding. Deulofeu was now lighting up Goodison and Gibson was giving it away again allowing Grabban to force Robles into a fine save from point blank range with a tip over for a corner which we cleared and set Deulofeu off on a run that left defenders ‘blowing for tugs’. He crossed well and both Lukaku and McCarthy just could not get the ball to sit were they wanted and from a tackle the ball went to Osman who shot over. We were playing better now than in any other part of the match as 10 minutes to go showed up. Could we avoid extra time? Well we were giving it a good go now. They get a corner which Robles cleared and we were in their box in a trice but that final ball or first touch was still thwarting us.
Just 5 minutes to go and neither team wanted extra time as both went Gung-Ho. Olsson burst forward and hit a screamer but Robles tipped over in good style . We cleared the corner and attacked again and Barkley was fouled. Mirallas swung in a beauty and their keeper tipped over but our corner came to nought. 90 minutes came up with 4 added and Norwich attacked and crossed and Grabban got in a power header but Robles made a great save as he palmed the ball away. We got one chance and from a dink over the top Lukaku won the foot race with their keeper and went around him but a Norwich covering fullback got around to clear. Extra time it was.
We started on the front foot but we are still unable to make a final ball count. Mirallas was still playing in a lackadaisical way and even when Barkley put him in one on one which used to be his forte, tonight he put it wide. The manager must have seen enough so he was subbed for Naismith. Both teams had attacks as the whistle approached and Stones was having a bit of a mare – in fact he was poor all night, especially in dealing with crosses. At the whistle still 1-1
Second half and we started strong and pressed hard but Barkley spoilt our first three attacks with poor ball control. Gibson was now back to decent passing and from one through ball he fed Lukaku who gained a corner and what a corner. Deulofeu took it and sent the ball into orbit across the front of the street end and following its trajectory it looked like 4 planets lined up. Venus, Jupiter and Mars, plus a Spanish moon. I have never seen a corner taken like that. We had another couple of corners but Stones headed one wide and the other was cleared. Norwich were attacking as often as us and it resembled a basketball game – real end to end as no one wanted pens.
In the run up to the whistle tired legs gave it a go. Naismith gained a free kick which was arced in and Funes Mori sent a power header over. Inter play between Deulofeu and Stones set Lukaku on a run on goal and even after being tugged back he managed a shot that went wide, deflected for a corner. Why the Ref didn’t give a pen for the blatant tug I don’t know, unless he was related to Clattenberg and Collina.
Norwich gained a corner and the excellent Robles punched clear. Deulofeu beat man after man and set up Barkley at the near post. He can tap in or pass to McCarthy but, no, he blasts well over. What a miss. Composure is not his middle name, so thanks, Ross pens it was.
After what seemed like an hour’s deliberation we finally got to take them at the Street end.
Deulofeu, Barkley, Lukaku and Gibson all scored.
Dorans, Whittaker, Grabban all score Robles saved Hoolahan's pen and Redmond missed.
Everton win 4-3 on Pens. If yer know yer ‘Istery was loud and proud.
MotM — Robles
A frustrating night out watching a poor Blues display but in the cup a win is a win and passage to the next round. And who knows even with a poor performance all round that win can kick start are home fortunes. Can we get fortress Goodison back? I reckon Robles should have another go on Sunday but I am not the manager so I will expect to see Howard.
After tonight I am delighted that Barry can play I thought we missed his vocal input and play tonight as we didn’t have one player showing composure and craft. He might be getting on but he will take some replacing down the line. See you Sunday for lunch and a win.
UP THE BLUES
Everton are back in Capital One Cup action this evening looking to progress past the League Cup 4th round for first time in 8 years.
Not since the 2007/08 season when David Moyes's quest to win this trophy for the first time in the club's history have the Blues reached the quarter final stage but there is a yearning among the fanbase to see the team push on and finally break our duck in the League Cup with Wembley glory.
Tonight represents the first home tie of this year's competition and home turf advantage was well received when the draw was made last month. Everton, however, have the worst home record in the top flight this season and face in Norwich City another Premier League side so while there is plenty of incentive to get a result that may translate into better League form, there are no guarantees either.
If the Canaries showed anything in their last away game, however, it's that they can be highly vulnerable at the back as they shipped six goals to a Newcastle team that has been pretty dreadful so far under Steve McClaren. Deumerci Mbokani scored his first goal since arriving from Dynamo Kiev in the summer and he will be looking for a better fortune than the last time he visited Goodison Park in the Europa League in March when he wason the losing side in a first leg match-up.
The striker will need to shake off a bout of illness if he is to feature, though; if he doesn't make it, there's always Cameron Jerome who will fancy putting Everton's usual accommodation of struggling strikers to the test.
Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, has already confirmed that Joel Robles will be making his customary cup start but his opportunity to shine will have more weight on it this time given Tim Howard's poor display against Arsenal on Saturday and the subsequent scrutiny of him in the media.
Gareth Barry is suspended so either Tom Cleverley or Darron Gibson could step in, while the likes of Aiden McGeady, Byan Oviedo, Leon Osman and Kevin Mirallas, all on the fringes of the first team so far this season, will also be hoping for some game time.
At the back, Phil Jagielka is ruled out with a knee injury so Ramiro Funes Mori will deputise for what looks likely to be the beginning of a two-month stint in the starting XI if he, too, can stay healthy but those forced changes aside, it is hoped that the manager won't shuffle things around too much and risk destabilising the team.
Kick off: 7.45pm