It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that Gylfi Sigurdsson enjoyed his first return to South Wales since leaving Swansea for Everton in a club record deal
two-and-a-half years 18 months ago. Injured the last time the Toffees faced his old club away in April last year, the Icelandic international went into the belly of the Cardiff beast this evening as an ex-Jack and emerged the victor with two goals and a man-of-the-match display to his credit.
At a time when Everton and their manager have been under heightened scrutiny, they needed a big performance from somebody and Sigurdsson, the subject of plenty of criticism of his own lately, delivered with a brace of accomplished strikes that had the home side well beaten before Dominic Calvert-Lewin delivered the coup de grâce in second-half stoppage time.
If figuring out just how best to fit Sigurdsson into this Everton team remains something of a riddle, at least until a reliable, top-class goalscorer can be acquired, then at least the 29-year-old has been a regular source of goals from midfield this season. Indeed, he and Richarlison have been responsible for 21 of the Blues’ 39 in the Premier League this season and it was especially important that the Nordic star rose to the occasion because the Brazilian continues to struggle for form.
Substituted in the 66th minute at Watford 17 days ago following an almost completely ineffective outing, Richarlison was withdrawn with an hour gone at the Cardiff City Stadium having again failed to make much of an imprint on the contest. Unlike at Vicarage Road, the 21-year-old actually had a handful of chances to pick up the ball from the deep as he is wont to do and test the opposition defence but every time he either ran into a cul-de-sac or his normally assured touch deserted him.
His replacement, compatriot Bernard, made an altogether more impactful entrance to the game, his enterprising run eventually allowing Sigurdsson to ram home his second and effectively kill the game against a Cardiff side who would fail to register a shot on target all game.
That might have been different were it not for Lucas Digne who was in the right place at the right time in the opening few minutes to bail returning captain Phil Jagielka out of a potentially humiliating error. Cardiff had counter-attacked when an early Everton move involving Seamus Coleman broke down and Jagielka had come across to the right-back position to close down an overhit ball from Bobby Reid.
The veteran defender badly under-hit a pass aimed for Jordan Pickford which was seized upon by Kenneth Zohore but his square ball looking for Nathaniel Mendez-Laing in front of goal was knocked behind by Digne.
In general, though, while it wasn’t high on entertainment value, an Everton side featuring a couple of somewhat surprising changes that saw Coleman come back in for Jonjoe Kenny and Morgan Schneiderlin make his first start since September when André Gomes made his Toffees debut. Silva’s men were enjoying the lion’s share of possession and playing with greater assurance than has been the case in recent weeks. Sigurdsson and Idrissa Gueye stood out from an attacking perspective, with the Senegalese midfielder passing the ball in pleasingly accomplished fashion, the Icelander pressing from the front and Schneiderlin looking unusually comfortable in the holding role.
Of the few opportunities that Everton fashioned in the opening 40 minutes, both were half-chances that fell to Theo Walcott who was again preferred on the right to Bernard or Ademola Lookman. The winger pinged a volley across goal and wide when Jagielka’s header from a corner fell invitingly and then lashed a half-volley over the crossbar from Sigurdsson’s clipped ball forward.
The breakthrough, when it came less than five minutes before the break, began with an excellent ball down the line by Schneiderlin that released Coleman behind the fullback and his cut-back was perfect for Sigurdsson to stroke home first time into the bottom corner and silence the home fans who had booed his every touch to that point.
Cardiff’s only other opening in the first half had come when Zohore chested forward a pass from Aron Gunnarsson but sliced his effort wide and they would fail to test Pickford in the second half either, although they did cause the visitors one scare shortly after half-time. Zohore rather easily out-muscled Michael Keane but his cut-back from near the byline was cut out by Schneiderlin.
With Richarlison labouring to make any inroads, it was the change that introduced his compatriot that led to Everton doubling their lead in the 66th minute. Bernard twisted and turned Bruno Ecuele Manga before accelerating past him to the byline and attempting to fizz the ball across the face of goal. Neil Etheridge got a hand on the cross but could only divert it straight to Sigurdsson who hammered it back with interest, bulging the net behind the Filipino international who barely had time to react.
The two-goal cushion really allowed Everton to relax and dictate the game with a welcome confidence that has been sorely lacking over the past three months; it's been a while since the Blues have passed the ball as well. Calvert-Lewin drilled an effort a yard or so wide from just outside the box after being played into space by Sigurdsson, an exercise in adjusting his sights for a superbly taken goal from a similar position in the third minute of stoppage time.
Gueye was the provider this time with a drive past his man in the centre circle and then a superbly weighted pass through the middle and Calvert-Lewin had time to bend a shot past the ‘keeper and set the seal on a handsome away win that lifted that effectively banishes whatever remote chance there was that Everton could be sucked into the relegation dogfight at the bottom.
More importantly for Silva, it eases the pressure that was mounting on his shoulders and provides a timely shot in the arm ahead of Sunday’s Merseyside derby. Whether elements of his team selection had that clash with Liverpool in mind remains to be seen but he wasn’t let down at all by Schneiderlin in particular and while Jagielka’s return was enforced by Yerry Mina’s lack of match fitness and Kurt Zouma’s suspension, the skipper was an importance influence in defence after he had shrugged off that early mistake.
Although it has to be said that Cardiff were desperately poor, there were signs nonetheless of the Everton that looked so well-placed for a top-six challenge prior to the last derby. The key now is to carry that forward over the remainder of the season and afford Silva the breathing room to plan for next season rather than be looking around nervously for the potential chop.
Everton resume their Premier League programme following a 17-day hiatus with a trip to Cardiff City that has assumed heightened importance for manager Marco Silva.
It was hoped that when the Portuguese was appointed, such trips to relegation-haunted sides would be viewed as routine victories but, on a run of form worthy of the bottom three themselves, the Blues travel to South Wales needing a result to ease the pressure on the shoulders of all concerned.
Silva received assurances over his position from majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, earlier this month and again in face-to-face talks more recently but, as Claude Puel's dismissal this week by Leicester City demonstrated, there is only so long a poor sequence of form can continue before the manager's future comes under serious scrutiny from the hierarchy.
“I met [him] but it is not the first time, will not be the last one,” Silva said his meeting with Moshiri. “It is something you do often, not just because we had the break. Fortunately for us we can meet. It is something you can do easy, something every time we have the time to, we do. Not just with our owner, with our chairman too.
“Yes, good talks of course. I am the first one to understand about the results, but we are talking about the present, the future also, and he passed to me and for our players also the confidence he has in our work and the players we have, and also like me he believes he can achieve the results in the next games.
“All the managers they have to show results and show why the club signed with him. To show the project, to show the idea, but in the end the main thing will be the results. I don't have any doubt about that.”
Everton have won just three times in the League since they last met Cardiff in late November and a Gylfi Sigurdsson gave the Blues a slender victory at Goodison Park. Two of those subsequent victories have come away from home, however, and the hope is that Silva and his players have been able to use the break enforced by the absence of cup football to rethink, recharge and reset.
How the Portuguese will set his side up will be keenly observed. The deployment of a four-man central midfield appeared to provide more stability in that area of the park against Manchester City but when Sigurdsson was included playing more on the left side of midfield at Watford last time out, the Icelander's effectiveness was greatly diminished so it remains to be seen whether Silva will try him there again.
And if he is to be restored his preferred central role behind the striker, then provisions must be made for a closer link between him and the selected striker, presumably Cenk Tosun but it could just as well be Dominic Calvert-Lewin. In that instance, it would just leave the issue of who among Bernard, Theo Walcott and Ademola Lookman is handed the wide role on the opposite flank to Richarlison. The diminutive Brazilian has arguably been the most consistent of the three but he was overlooked for a starting berth against Watford while Walcott started against City.
In defence, Kurt Zouma's one-game ban means that a change will be enforced there and with Yerry Mina still rated doubtful with a foot injury, it will almost certainly mean a first Premier League appearance for Phil Jagielka since his he was sent off in the first game of the season against Wolves. Leighton Baines is fit again after recovering from a rib injury but Lucas Digne will almost certainly start and it's highly possible that Jonjoe Kenny will be allowed to continue at right back at the expense of Seamus Coleman.
Meanwhile, the Bluebirds, who had won two on the bounce before being trounced at home 5-1 by Watford on Saturday, won't be able to field Oumar Niasse against his parent club which should see Kenneth Zohore make his first start since September.
While the “R” word seemed an almost unthinkable prospect just a few weeks ago — in truth, it would take a spectacular collapse in form for it to realistically enter the equation for Everton this season — wins over the weekend for Crystal Palace, Burnley and Newcastle have compressed the gap between the Blues and the clutch of clubs sitting above the bottom three. The Blues come into this round of midweek fixtures in 11th place but are just three points above the Eagles and the Clarets, five ahead of the Magpies and only eight above Cardiff themselves who are in 17th.
A win would lift Silva's men to 36 points and effectively banish relegation completely as a concern but it would also ease the pressure on Silva's shoulders and provide the team some momentum heading into Sunday's Merseyside derby.
Win both of these next two games and the picture will start to look a lot healthier for the manager. Lose them and the tenor of the conversation will be very different.
Kick-off: 7:45pm, Tuesday 26 February, 2018
Referee: Kevin Friend
Last Time: Cardiff City 0 - 0 Everton (August 2013)
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Kenny, Jagielka, Keane, Digne, Gueye, Gomes, Davies, Sigurdsson, Richarlison, Tosun