The title of a recent episode of the ToffeeWeb Podcast suggested that Evertonians were on a “rollercoaster from hell” courtesy of their team and, on the basis of the past four days, the ride is still going. At least going into this latest 11-day hiatus before Everton play next, supporters are on the upswing again following a 1-0 victory that could prove to be massive in terms of the club’s bid for Premier League survival this season.
Much has been made of the mentality of the Blues’ players as they have sunk like a stone to the depths of the table since making that fine start to the campaign way back in August but it is to their enormous credit that despite a short turnaround from the pain of a shock defeat at 9:30pm on Wednesday evening to a 12:30 kick-off today they managed to turn in a terrific performance and grind out three vital points.
Once again, bipolar Everton was in evidence — shaky, fragile and error-ridden at Turf Moor, where they threw away precious points and, potentially, handed the psychological advantage to Burnley in the respective clubs’s hopes of avoiding relegation to the Championship, to tenacious, obdurate and undaunted against a side supposedly chasing Champions League football.
Manchester United’s lack of inspiration under Ralf Rangnick’s interim stewardship has been well documented by media interests who obsess over the so-called big six and their lacklustre showing will no doubt be harped on in the days to come. Certainly, Gary Neville minced no words in describing them as “a joke”; David de Gea used the word “a disgrace” while Rangnick himself lamented his team’s failure to score against a team that had shipped three at Burnley in midweek.
While understandable, they undermine Everton’s efforts in becoming the first team this season to stop United from scoring on their travels in the Premier League. This was a display reminiscent of the Blues of seasons in past when a “big” team comes to Goodison Park — disciplined, resolute and spurred on by a raucous home crowd. The game against Newcastle, the Toffees’ last win before today, was decided by a solitary moment of penetration and, in truth, Everton didn’t create many more clear-cut moments this afternoon. But they didn’t have to.
Once they had been given the lead courtesy of Anthony Gordon’s 27th-minute strike and a touch of overdue fortune, they dug in and frustrated the visitors, to the extent that Cristiano Ronaldo (surely as anonymous as a player of his calibre has ever been at Goodison) left the field in a strop and took his annoyance out on a fan as he hobbled down the tunnel pointing at a gash in his shin.
Much was down to the return of both Allan and Fabian Delph who provided the platform in midfield for Alex Iwobi to have, arguably, his best game since joining Everton from Arsenal three years ago. It wasn’t his most effective from an attacking point of view but his sheer determination and willingness to cover almost every blade of grass was incredible, an individual effort summed up by a photograph that went viral on social media afterwards of the Nigerian on his knees with fists clenched in celebration at the final whistle.
After having to sit out for three matches due to a suspension that feels more and more harsh with the passage of time — not to mention other worse challenges by players playing for the right clubs to get preferential treatment from Stockley Park — Allan was at his best levels in the middle of the park but Delph was superb for his first 80 minutes of action in four months.
Vitalii Mykolenko, meanwhile, built on the Wednesday’s display with his most impressive performance yet that suggests that, after a difficult transition from his native Ukraine, he is finally getting to grips with life in the Premier League. Together with Seamus Coleman’s return on the other side of defence that allowed the struggling Jonjoe Kenny to drop back to the bench and a match-winning contribution from Jordan Pickford and Lampard had the ingredients he needed for a fifth home win in seven in all competitions since taking charge.
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Everton betrayed a few nerves in the early going with Michael Keane, back in the line-up after serving a one-game ban, having a particularly bad first 20 minutes before he eventually settled and it was the visitors who carried the early threat. A poor clearing header by Delph ended with Marcus Rashford testing Pickford with a low shot that the England goalkeeper did well to push behind before a sloppy ball by Keane allowed Bruno Fernandes to cross for Rashford who prompted an even better stop from Pickford.
Everton steadied themselves, however, and when Richarlison chased down a ball into the channel and his cut-back came off a United defender and fell to Gordon, the winger fired goal-wards and profited from a heavy deflection of Harry Maguire that diverted the ball past De Gea.
Keane went close with a header that flew over off a Gordon free-kick following handball by Nemanja Matic and Richarlison forced a good save from De Gea when his shot took a deflection off a defender's boot and was spinning under the crossbar until the Spaniard palmed it over.
Mykolenko, who typified the Blues' dogged rearguard action, had to head a dangerous Alex Telles cross over his own bar and then block another cross behind as United pressed in the closing stages of the first half but Everton were able to take their advantage into the break.
The second half was all about Everton defending their slender lead, frustrating their more talented opposition and trying to nick something on the break to give themselves a bigger cushion.
Fernandes almost found Rashford with an impressive deep ball into the Blues' box but the England striker just failed to get a crucial touch on it while, at the other end, a succession of Everton corners and balls across the face of goal by Mykolenko and Gordon failed to find Blue jerseys.
Ralf Rangnick's side needed a victory to keep their dwindling Champions League hopes alive and they maintained the pressure into the final 10 minutes, with Pickford getting down low to save from Paul Pogba, substitute Demarai Gray making a last-ditch block to deny Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Pickford then pulling off a vital reflex save with his arm to divert Cristiano Ronaldo's shot wide of goal in stoppage time.
Given the stakes and United’s dominance of the ball, this was a tortuous watch in the closing stages and if it weren’t for that excellent reaction save, Everton might have had two points ripped away from them. They deserved the victory, though — for the strength of character they showed after Wednesday, for their determination to keep the visitors at bay and for making the Red Devils look so ordinary.
Beyond that, though, Lampard will have a growing sense of his strongest system and line-up and it must centre around Delph and Allan going forward, with Iwobi and Donny van de Beek providing different options as the third, more attacking option in the middle three.
With Yerry Mina hopefully added to the ranks by the time the Blues next play, against Leicester on 20th April, Everton might actually be getting close to something resembling full-strength which can only bolster their chances of racking up enough points to achieve safety over the remaining eight games.
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