The weird end-of-season atmosphere continued at Goodison Park. This time a disorganised Everton were outplayed for significant periods but managed to triumph thanks to a handful of inspired moments at either end of the pitch.
With the arse falling out of Arsenal, so to speak, if we win our game in hand on the Gunners and turn them over at Goodison we would lie a mere two points behind the final Champions League place they occupy. So in theory it’s all still to play for.
However, in reality nobody believes that is possible now. The players certainly don’t look to have the same conviction as they had earlier in the season, with a number of them distinctly off-colour and already looking as if they have got one eye on the World Cup and maybe pastures new next season.
During the glorious first half of the season the playing model was all based around being patient in possession but relentless when winning the ball back. Perhaps it’s the demands of a long season with a relatively small squad, but that intensity when the opposition have the ball has definitely tailed off. As a result the ‘transitions’ from defence to attack are that much slower and our performances are looking increasingly disjointed. There are moments of individual inspiration, such as when Ross Barkley tricked his way over Chico Flores’s outstretched leg on 20 minutes and won a penalty, but we don’t look like the same formidable unit we were earlier in the season.
Having injuries to key personnel doesn’t help. Phil Jagielka would be a massive loss to any side – John Stones is progressing admirably for someone so young in such a key position, but in the spell at 3-1 when Swansea were dominant and the first whiff of mutiny was detectable in the Goodison air we could have done with the England centre-half there to kick a few players up the arse: theirs and ours.
Despite some seeing him as a weak link in the Toffees line-up, Steven Pienaar is always missed when he is absent too. He buys everyone an extra yard of space with his close control, especially the fullbacks who usually start their forward runs the moment they see the ball played into the little South African. The idea that the two stalwarts Pienaar and Leon Osman need to be replaced is not an unreasonable one, but perhaps not everyone realises just how difficult that’s going to be.
Aiden McGeady replaced Pienaar from the start against Swansea and looked confident whenever he got on the ball. The Irish winger looked at fault for the visitors’ equaliser though on 33 minutes when left trailing by Angel Rangel. The busy Wayne Routledge picked the Spanish fullback out with a diagonal ball that he squared to rumoured Everton target Wilfried Bony for a tap-in. £15 million sounds a lot for the chunky ODB-looking striker but he is certainly the sort of bruiser who might suit our system even better than the willing but wayward Romelu Lukaku.
Bony put a decent effort just wide after the break as the crowd sensed that the Blues were in danger of getting nothing from the game, such was their defensive shakiness and Swansea’s confidence in possession. However, on 53 minutes a good tackle by Sylvain Distin launched a counter-attack that looked as if it had petered out when Lukaku ran into yet another dead end. However, the on-loan centre-forward extricated himself from a tangle of defenders and forced the ball out wide to Belgian teammate and borderline boo-boy-if-he’s-not-careful Kevin Mirallas. His low cross was a pearler and Lukaku’s sliding finish at the near post gave Michel Vorm no chance.
Five minutes later another good ball from Mirallas, this time a whipped corner, evaded everyone at the near post and left Barkley unmarked to head home into the empty net from close range.
Garry Monk took a break from setting up hilarious booby traps to deter a couple of bungling burglars and introduced niggly ratbag Jonjo Shelvey, a player who really doesn’t deserve the compliment of being booed for his tenuous Kopite connections, and he helped the Swans’ late push that required two really good saves from Tim Howard, not least a flying one-handed stop from a Bony header.
Ashley Williams eventually did convert from a corner well into injury time but Everton managed to do just enough to preserve all three points.
It feels a little bit odd to appear deflated after a 3-2 home win, but again it goes back to the expectations that were raised so much early in the season and now seeing everything begin to sag towards the finish line. Maybe it’s also because we simply expect Everton to win every game at Goodison now as well – if there’s ever even any sign of a struggle we start to question them.
Perhaps all is not lost though. We won’t go to St. James’ Park and win if we look half-arsed – three points from there then, and then hopefully the same at Craven Cottage, would at least send out a signal that we still mean business ahead of the Arsenal match in two weeks.
Anything less than that and all we will really have left is what promises to be a sensationally spiteful encounter with Manchester United on Easter Sunday. The game that has been dubbed: el Cardigano.