Another home game, another glut of goals and another victory to savour as Leicester’s irresistible force foundered on the immovable object that is Everton at Goodison Park this afternoon who completed the double over the soon-to-be deposed Champions.
The Foxes came to Merseyside on the back of a five-match winning run under their new manager, one which has propelled them away from relegation danger, but in what was a rip-roaring encounter, for the first hour at least, they were eventually undone by an uncompromising and incisive Blues team.
It was the kind of match that simultaneously makes you incredibly optimistic about the future under Ronald Koeman — the Romelu Lukaku caveat notwithstanding — while also rueful over the missed opportunities, particularly away from home where this Everton side has lacked the kind of verve and determination they showed today.
This was a test of character, an illustration of both the resilience and attacking potency of Koeman’s side and another example of how far it has moved on from the fearful and vulnerable outfit it was a year ago under the Dutchman’s predecessor. Not only that, the Blues showed their improvement from just a few months ago when they lost the FA Cup Third Round tie to Leicester by throwing away a lead and succumbing to the Foxes’ own spirit.
There were shades today of that solitary stain on Everton’s home record in 2017 with just 10 minutes gone. Tom Davies had put them ahead with the second goal scored after just 30 seconds that the Grand Old Lady has born witness to this year, an impressively composed finish following Kevin Mirallas’s purposeful run and some commendable refereeing by Robert Madley in allowing play to go on despite Daniel Amartey pulling the Belgian back.
Everton coughed up that precious early advantage just three minutes later when they were caught cold on a counter-attack led by Demarai Gray who accelerated away from Mason Holgate — the young defender electing not to scythe him down from behind — and played Islam Slimani in for a simple finish through Joel Robles’s legs.
And the visitors had turned the game on its head before 10 minutes had elapsed when Marc Albrighton accepted the gift of a clumsy foul by Matthew Pennington on Jamie Vardy just outside the penalty area to sail a free kick over Robles and make it 2-1.
It was not the Spanish ‘keeper’s finest moment — another question mark over his reliability as first-choice between the posts over the long term — and Pennington probably wanted to hide after his costly error but, to the defender’s credit he put the incident behind him and went on to perform solidly for the remainder of the contest.
So, too, did Everton as a collective and it’s the fortitude of will combined with the matching strength of the players who drove the side on to victory that was so pleasing to witness. Inspired by the return of Morgan Schneiderlin, the quietly effective linchpin backed in front of the back four until he made way for Gareth Barry with 20 minutes to go, and supported by the industry of Davies and Idrissa Gueye, the Blues re-established their grip on the match and patiently set about working their way back into the match.
Gueye may have looked in recent weeks as though his month away at the Africa Cup of Nations had served to critically disrupt his domestic season but he was back to his brilliant best today; part disruptor, part forward-moving dynamo, he was involved in the build-up to Everton’s equaliser midway through the first half. He fed the ball wide to Ross Barkley and the young England man whipped in a pin-point early cross evocative of Gerard Deulofeu that had carried all the pace on it that Lukaku needed to steer it past Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal.
The momentum was back with Koeman’s men now who, epitomised by the rejuvenated Mirallas and the inventive Barkley, were combative, determined and pleasing on the eye in equal measure. Barkley may have wanted too long on the ball at times, a nit in his game that continues to rankle, but he deserves credit for shaking off the criticism of his performance in the Anfield derby in particular by getting back to his busy and productive self in this game.
He’s probably still wondering how he didn’t score five minutes before half-time, though. Put through by Davies’s brilliant tackle in midfield, Barkley rounded Schmeichel and just needed to slide the ball home but the Leicester ‘keeper did superbly well to scramble to the side and get a glove on the shot to divert the ball behind.
His satisfaction was short-lived, however. From the resulting corner, Mirallas curled the ball in and Phil Jagielka rose elegantly to guide a header into the corner and make it 3-2 at the break. A player written off by many based on his advancing years and the increasing frequency of his errors earlier in the season, the Captain put in another terrific shift and was, again, a strong candidate alongside Gueye, Barkley, Lukaku and Mirallas for man of the match.
He also played a significant role in the fourth goal in the 58th minute that effectively made the game safe at 4-2. Once more a dangerous Mirallas corner swerved in from the left side was met by Jagielka but while Andy King blocked his header, the ball dropped invitingly for Lukaku to rap back across goal and into far corner.
That goal took the Belgian’s tally to 23 for the season in the League, represented his eight successive home game with a goal, and it was Everton’s invitation to slow proceedings down and control things for the remainder of the half.
Leonardo Ulloa came off the bench for Leicester and threatened to make things uncomfortably interesting with almost identical headers off set-pieces, but the first hit Gueye on its way to goal and Robles made a reflexive one-handed save for the other to ensure that there would be no way back for Craig Shakespeare’s men who lost for the first time under his stewardship.
Leicester go into a Champions League quarter final against Atletico Madrid in midweek and it’s the hope of everyone connected with Everton that such prestigious evenings are in the Toffees’ future under Koeman. Their home form since the turn of the year unquestionably suggests they are definitely moving in that direction; what’s needed now is for the manager to translate this new-found spirit and resilience at home to away matches, Steve Walsh to weave his magic in the transfer market this summer, and for the Board to convince Lukaku that the “Everton Project” could then be close to delivering his Champions League dream.
A crazy goalfest in the first half at Goodison Park began inside the first minute as Everton took the game to the reigning Premier League Champions.
Morgan Schneiderlin was back in the starting XI after recovering from a calf strain while Matthew Pennington started at centre-half in place of Ashley Williams who was suspended after picking up a red card in the final minute at Old Trafford. Kevin Mirallas also started.
The visitors kicked off but from a deep throw-in, Mirallas scampered up the field and the ball ran to Tom Davies as Mirallas was fouled on the edge of the area and Davies beat two defenders and Schmeichel to bury it inside 31 seconds. Brilliant! – and very good advantage played by referee Robert Madley.
Mirallas was next to come close but the attack broke down and the Foxes tore through the entire Everton midfield and defense, Slimania in acres of space with time to slide it through Robles and into the Gwladys Street net. Crazy defending!
Everton continued to press, undaunted by the vim and vigour of their opponents who were keen to deny them much space, Pennington getting himself into trouble against Vardy, and giving up a free-kick that was converted brilliantly by Albrighton. A cross perhaps mis-hit, and definitely misread by Robles.
Everton won a corner taken by Mirallas that pinged all round the Leicester box, Davies's shot blocked and Mirallas's cross over-hit... like Gana's awful forward ball. At the other end, Robles had to save from Gray with his feet and the Blues reverted to slower, more considered build-up that came to nought.
Dreadfully laboured possession football ensued that went precisely nowhere, Lukaku finishing it by passing the ball behind for a goal kick. But it was much crisper with the next attack, Barkley swinging in an absolute peach from the touchline and it was simple for Lukaku to convert, nodding past Schmeichel.
Davies was so alert, knew exactly where he was playing the ball before it was passed to him — a contrast to Barkley's occasional hesitations. Mirallas and Huth had a set-to, for what looked like an attempted stamp, both earning yellows.
The home side tried to play through the middle with intricate passing that was destined to break down. They reverted to the wing, where Holgate was fouled by Slimani as he set to cross. Barkley cut it back from the byeline with a low drive but it was intercepted.
The Foxes won a corner at the other end that Mirallas hoofed up field but of course all 11 blue shirts were in their own penalty area; advantage lost. Barkley tried for once to shoot from outside the area but gave his marker too much sight of the ball. Lukaku then beat Chilwell but spooned his shot well over.
Barkley set up Gueye for a shot that was deflected wide for a corner that was cleared but came straight back for Barkley who had the easiest of jobs to go around Schmeichel and slot home — only for a desperate outstretched arm from the keeper that he failed to anticipate as it was pushed past the post. But the corner was delivered superbly with pace and swing and accuracy from Mirallas and headed home brilliantly by Jagielka, skipping around to position himself perfectly for it at the far post.
Baines was a little too aggressive again and gave up a dangerous free-kick while picking up a yellow card, leading to another Leicester corner that Lukaku cleared before the break.
The game restarted and Lukaku played a nice back-heel that Barkley looked to profit from but he was closed down before he could shoot. Slimani got forward on the break, his shot deflected into the side netting, Huth then handling the corner.
Holgate was a little too keen to hoof the ball forward aimlessly, which did not help matters as they looked too open on the turnovers. It was lively stuff in midfield, however; both sides keen not to surrender the sixth goal. Would that be influenced by the introduction of Riyad Marhez? Not before Mirallas won a smart corner, driven home at the far post by Romelu Lukaku, now on 23 goals!
Barkley tried to pick out Lukaku with a good forward ball but Schmeichel was out too quickly. Madley was playing advantage again, letting a poor foul by King on Gueye seemingly go before he did finally show him the yellow card when there was a break in play, but the crime had been committed for many unforgiving Blues fans.
Barkley and Lukaku looked to combine well into the Foxes area but Chilwell was in smartly to challenge. The Blues were controlling the game as Barry replaced Schneiderlin, who had brought exceptional solidity to the middle of the park.
Everton were conceding possession to the visitors, who nevertheless were having little success getting into the Everton penalty area. Musa won a corner before Ulloa came on for Albrighton. Mahrez delivered a superb corner that Ulloa headed straight at Gueye and away. But Barkley fouled Mahrez rather poorly, setting up another chance for the visitors, who kept probing away.
But Everton had been comfortably in control since Lukaku's second goal and were determined to play the rest of the game out without further incident. But it needed a brilliant goal-line clearance from Jagielka to prevent Musa from scoring after Robles had blocked a point-blank header from Ulloa.
It ended in a fine victory by the Blues over the reigning Champions, and the first loss for their new manager, Craig Shakespeare.
Scorers: Davies (1'), Lukaku (23', 58'), Jagielka (45'); Slimami (4'), Albrighton (10').
Everton: Robles, Holgate, Pennington, Jagielka, Baines [Y:45'], Schneiderlin (73' Barry), Gueye, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas [Y:28'], Lukaku.
Subs: Stekelenburg, Kenny, J Williams, Lookman, Valencia, Calvert-Lewin.
Leicester City: Schmeichel; Amartey, Benalouane, Huth [Y:28'], Chilwell; Albrighton (78' Ulloa), King [Y:64'], Drinkwater, Gray (61' Mahrez); Slimani, Vardy (61' Musa).
Subs not Used: Zieler, Kupustka, Simpson, Wasilewski.
Referee: Robert Madley
One for the hipsters
I'm currently recovering from my third bout of tonsillitis within a five-week period so my initial plans of enjoying the corporate facilities at the Dixie Dean Suite with Ste were out of the question. As too were any pub plans. Whilst you can drink when on antibiotics it's generally not recommended and, in an effort to really nip this in the bud this time, I'm laying off the alcohol entirely until I feel 100% again.
Earlier in the week I wasn't going to come along at all but feeling rather better than I was I decided to go the game... four days of home-confinement will do that to you. With pubs out of the question then, particularly in very warm weather, I donned my shorts, packed some lunch and drove over to Goodison Park...even, without a hint of envy, dropping Ste off at the ground before parking up.
With the best part of three hours to kill before kick off and armed with lunch, radio and newspaper and with the sun shining, I headed for the park. The obvious destination would be Stanley Park, but I instead marched on along Walton Road and up St Domingo Road towards Everton Park. It made me wonder what life used to be like in this area.
Everton Library, though dilapidated, still stands. Everton Park itself replaced a terraced, close-nit community in the 1960s when the 120,000 people who lived there were bulldozed out and forced to live in areas on the outer limits of the city. If you go to the park today, it's incredible to imagine how it once was.
When trudging back from Anfield last Saturday we stumbled upon Everton Park and were quite blown away by the wonderful view of the Liverpool city skyline. I hoped to replicate this and enjoy the warm weather, however my best laid plans didn't quite materialise as the sun clouded over making the view not-quite-so-spectacular, and the temperature dropped while the wind picked up, making a mockery of my summer attire. I was relieved as the clock ticked on towards kick off... though a great view, my plan required warmer weather.So back I walked, the area around Goodison Park now buzzing with pre-match anticipation, Goodison Park looking splendid. I grabbed a quick coffee from the Fan Zone and was in the ground in comfortable time. The teams came out, Goodison Park in good noise. Two changes from the late collapse at Manchester United –- Matthew Pennington in for the suspended Ashley Williams, and Morgan Schneiderlin returning to the starting line up after injury and replacing Graeth Barry.
Leicester City, who have a big game at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday rested several players, with Kasper Schmeichel captaining their side. You somehow fancied goals in this one and it turned out to be one for the hipsters... with a goalkeeper captain, a goal within the opening 30 seconds, plenty of young players on show, six goals, little scraps in the game, goals from centre backs, a terrible referee and even an after-the-full-time-whistle chip into the net from Kevin Mirallas...the game had everything!
One of the lads arrived slightly after kick off, about 15 seconds in, and I was half-greeting him/half watching Kevin Mirrallas surge forward when Kevin was pulled back by Daniel Amartey. The referee will say he played the advantage though given his inconsistencies throughout, I'll say he didn't want to know. Anyhow, the ball ran on to the alert Tom Davies who did brilliantly to bamboozle the defender before placing into the net. Everton ahead in around 30 seconds!
Well you can't ask for more than that, can you? Well only if you then protect your lead. The supporters were screaming for a foul, I forget on whom, when Leicester City broke away. Nobody was able to stop a brilliant surge forward by Demarai Gray as he pelted towards our goal. Our defenders, notably, Matthew Pennington, backed off a little too hesitantly and he was able to put a ball through for Islam Slimani to poke through the legs of Joel Robles to level the scores.
If Matthew Pennington was somewhat at fault for Leicester City's equaliser, his muddled thinking was definitely at fault for Marc Albrighton's beautifully hit free kick to put the reigning Champions ahead. Jamie Vardy caught him out dwelling on the ball and in his panic to win it back, Matthew gave away a free kick from what seemed a useful crossing position. Albrighton had other ideas of course and bent in a great free kick. At least that's my take on it. On the way home, on BBC Radio Merseyside, Joel Robles was getting a bit of stick for conceding from this. I haven't seen it since but, though you wonder how he got beaten from that angle, the accuracy seemed quite brilliant from Albrighton who does get wicked curl on the ball.
So inside 10 minutes we'd gone ahead and now behind. Already we had quite a game, soon made better when a sublime delivery from the right by Ross Barkley was effortlessly headed in by Romelu Lukaku. If you can put a ball in like that, no striker worth his salt should miss. This led to a bit of a debate amongst us on Romelu's performances these last couple of games at Anfield and Old Trafford. I argued he needed to do more, but it was hard to disagree with another comment that if he gets the service he scores the goals, and where was his service in those aforementioned games? Anyhow, Ross Barkley rightly got the adulation from the Gwladys Street for supplying such a fantastic ball.
Goodison Park really came to life and the crowd began to expect in what was a wonderful tempo to the game. Credit to Leicester City for making a darn good game of it. With Atletico Madrid on Wednesday it would have been easy to pull out of tackles and play within themselves a bit, but they were full-blooded and gave it a good go. It was Everton however who edged ahead before the break, and probably deservedly, when Phil Jagielka rose, yes, like a salmon, to land a textbook header into the net from an excellent Kevin Mirallas delivery.
Prior to that, it looked for all the world that Ross Barkley was to score, and he should have, but credit to Kasper Schmeichel for making a quite brilliant recovery save. The Danish goalkeeper will have been disappointed with his team-mates' defending from the resulting corner, I assume. All credit to Phil Jagielka, though, who has really shone brightly since returning to the team.
Everton really stepped it up a gear in the second half and pressed for some daylight between the two teams. Kevin Mirallas and Phil Jagielka were again both involved with our fourth goal when Kevin's corner was flicked on by Phil Jagielka, the ball breaking to Romalu Lukaku who finished well, smashing it into the goal with his right foot. Perhaps excited about another hat-trick, Romelu really upped his game in the preceding 10 minutes or so but alas that wasn't to be. Nevertheless, four goals from corner kicks in the last three games suggests we are at least practising these, something we didn't do under Ronald Koeman's predecessor.
There was still plenty of time, and life, left in the game as Leicester City wouldn't go away, and it took some brave blocks and one masterful goal-saving clearance from just short of his own goal line by captain Phil Jagielka to preserve our two-goal advantage. Had it got to 4-3 with time still on the clock we'd have gotten twitchy... it's not as if we haven't seen such defensive meltdowns at Goodison Park before.
We were able to see out injury time fairly comfortably in the end, Kevin Mirallas even tormenting Kasper Schmeichel with his distance lob over him and into the net after the full time whistle had gone. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, even with my mid-life crisis afternoon park chill-out. With a 10-point advantage on West Bromwich Albion in eighth, plus a wildly superior goal difference, you have to expect that seventh is the minimum position we will finish, and baring an abnormality, such as Leicester City winning the Champions League, we can start getting our passports ready for next season.
Nothing that unfortunate could happen to us... could it?
Robles: Beaten through his legs and supposedly at fault for the free kick. The general consensus is that we need a new goalkeeper. I've done my very best to get behind Joel and he has shown what he's capable of in plenty of games; however, I struggle to overlook his mistakes in our recent trips to White Hart Lane and Anfield to name but two. It's hard to disagree when people say that we need to get a new goalkeeper in the summer. 6
Baines: Did well down the left and worked well with his team mates on that side of the field. 7
Jagielka: Helped coax Matthew Pennington through the game and lead by example. His renaissance of late suggests his future at Everton is far from over. 8
Pennington: After a poor first 20 minutes or so he recovered and put in some great blocks, tackles and clearances. Basically he stopped trying to do the fancy stuff and did the defensive basics. This served him well. He's somehow found himself under a bit of pressure so quickly after coming back into the team. He's been under the microscope and people have focused on his mistakes. We have to overlook that and remember that he did very well at the end of last season when everyone else seemed to have downed tools and has since had a lengthy injury. You have to give the lad a chance to show what he can do. He certainly did that this afternoon. 7
Holgate: Did well at right back. 7
Gueye: He had a very busy and tenacious game and provided good and steady skill on the ball at times also. Showed Leicester City perhaps exactly what they missed out on when they lost N'Golo Kante. My Man of the Match. 8
Schneiderlin: He is very good at doing a lot of the scrappy work in there. Has been missed in our two big games of late and he showed us what we've been missing today. A great player to have in your team. 7
Davies: Did ever so well to squeeze home the early goal and was as busy as ever throughout. He had a few sloppy moments as we got into the last quarter of the game and I thought it might be worth taking him off and giving Joe Wlliams a bit of playing time. However, he recovered well and regained his composure to finish the game strongly. Shows what I know. He's a great little talent and a real joy to watch. 7
Barkley: Back where he enjoys playing the most and back doing what he does best - making goals, or goal, in this instance. His cross for Romalu Lukaku was perfection and he had a busy and productive game which was pleasing given he's come in for some flack these last couple of games. 7
Mirallas: He always seems to enjoy playing against Leicester City and his three assists suggest he was well up for this one also. He carried the fight from the start and I like his aggression. Following his tantrum when he was substituted on Tuesday evening I thought we might not see Kevin in the starting line up for a little while but credit to Ronald Koeman, he put him straight back in and certainly got his reward. 8
Lukaku: League goals 22 and 23 for the season for Romalu (he would have had 24 also if not for an untimely slip) shows what a key role he has played this season. How would we have got by without his goals? If he goes, or perhaps when he goes, he will take some replacing. It's going to be an interesting summer. 8
Barry (for Schneiderlin): Filled a few holes and settled into the game nicely, if not spectacularly. 6
Following disappointment on their travels at Anfield and Old Trafford, Everton return to Goodison Park for back-to-back home games that represent perhaps their final chance to have a say in the race to finish in the top five in the Premier League.
Defeat in the Merseyside derby was followed by a significantly better showing against Manchester United, one that almost secured three vital points that really would have had Ronald Koeman's team well-positioned heading into the final nine games of the campaign.
As it is, the Blues come into this weekend three points behind United in sixth and Arsenal in fifth hoping that six points from their next two fixtures at home to Leicester City and Burnley can maintain the pressure on the clubs above them.
Goodison may have become Everton's fortress in 2017 — they've won six straight on home turf in the League so far this calendar year — but neither the Foxes nor the Clarets will provide easy opposition.
And Koeman's outfit has been depleted by key injuries in defence to Seamus Coleman and Ramiro Funes Mori, while Ashley Williams is suspended, leaving the manager with just one experienced hand at the back in the form of Phil Jagielka and needing to partner his captain one of his younger centre halves.
Matthew Pennington started as one of three centre backs at Anfield but struggled when pitched into the cauldron of the local grudge match. Nevertheless, Koeman kept sufficient faith in him to bring him on in difficult circumstances at Old Trafford on Tuesday night where he was again deployed alongside Jagielka and Williams to help form a line of defence that almost held out long enough for a win.
Mason Holgate, meanwhile, is a centre half by trade but who has acquitted himself well at right back deputising for Coleman and Koeman's decision over whom to play in the middle in Williams's stead may come down to whether he feels Jonjoe Kenny could do the job at right back. That would allow Holgate, arguably a more assured and experienced presence, to move into the centre next to his skipper.
Evertonian eyes will also be searching out the name of Morgan Schneiderlin when the team sheet is published at 3pm on Sunday, hoping that the midfielder will return after missing two matches with a calf strain.
“We need to check tomorrow morning if Morgan Schneiderlin is available for the weekend,” Koeman said in his pre-match press conference yesterday. “That decision will be made tomorrow and the rest [of the squad] is the same.”
Schneiderlin's influence and assured presence have been missed in the middle of the park and his return would certainly help to offset somewhat the afore-mentioned absentees in defence. With the manager alluding to a minor issue with Gareth Barry's knee before the Liverpool game and the need to keep him fresh for United last Tuesday, the French international's return could be even more important.
Further forward in the line-up, you would imagine that Kevin Mirallas did enough to warrant a second successive start with a display against the Red Devils that probably deserved a longer outing than the 60-odd minutes Koeman afforded him before substituting him in favour of Pennington.
But there were rumblings of discontent among the faithful that Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the other sub on the night, was preferred to Enner Valencia and Ademola Lookman, both of whom will be champing at the bit to get another run out now that the Blues are back at Goodison.
Leicester, the mocked and derided fallen champions who were in danger of being relegated in the year following their improbable title triumph, come to Merseyside on a run of five successive wins under Craig Shakespeare who was given the managerial role in place of sacked Claudio Ranieri until the end of the season.
They start the weekend in 11th place having seen off Liverpool, Hull, West Ham, Stoke and Sunderland since the Italian's dismissal and will be full of confidence that they can repeat last season's feat when they beat Roberto Martinez's side 3-2.
Shakespeare will be without his captain Wes Morgan, however, as well as midfielder Papy Mendy because of injury and could rest some important members of his team with one eye on next week's Champions League quarter final away at Atletico Madrid just three days after this match.
Indeed, the distraction of that clash with the Spanish club could work very much in Everton's favour and if the Blues can get their attacking machine humming again, reestablish the service lines to Romelu Lukaku and provide enough protection for the youth in their back line, they should be able to gain revenge for that miserable afternoon in December 2015
Kick-off: 4pm, Sunday 9th April 2017
Referee: Robert Madley
Last Time: Everton 2 - 3 Leicester City
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Holgate, Pennington, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, Gueye, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku