Everton 2 Aston Villa 1

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Winning this game probably isn’t that significant in the big sweep of things. Losing though, that would have felt catastrophic, so it was a sense of relief as much as anything that greeted the final whistle at a sodden Goodison after Kevin Mirallas’s sensational free kick sealed a late comeback for them tricky Blues.

Roberto Martinez is still mending and making do in terms of getting a team out on the pitch – Steven Pienaar and Seamus Coleman returned to the bench here while Sylvain Distin went straight into the starting line-up. Aiden McGeady made his full league debut.

The Irish winger almost made it a glorious introduction too, cutting in from the right with his jinky little baby steps and slamming a doozy of a shot against the far post. Unfortunately though that bright opening was not indicative of the rest of the half. Villa were negative and without a proper centre-forward Everton lacked any focal point for their attacks. Mirallas might be suited to the role of central striker away from home, but against moribund massed defences at Goodison his best assets, his direct running and his shooting, are too easily negated.

At almost no point during the first 45 minutes did one Everton player occupy two Villa defenders, through either strength or skill, so there was simply no space created to work in. The ball got moved slowly from side to side and the murky-shirted Midlanders shuffled along accordingly. It was painful to watch at times and, perhaps understandably after Tuesday night there were audible grumbles as some of the passing looked aimless and the forwards never seemed to make their runs with any conviction.

On one of the rare occasions that Ross Barkley tried to inject some drive into the Blues’ attack, on 34 minutes, it ended up backfiring as the young midfielder’s run across midfield was halted by Fabien Delph’s tackle. While the Evertonians were still crying foul, Christian Benteke fed the loose ball out to Leandro Bacuna who advanced on Tim Howard before slipping the ball through his legs and into the Gwladys Street net.

If Anfield was the point where the season derailed, this felt like the moment where it settled at the bottom of the canyon and then erupted in an oily cloud of smoke.

At half time Martinez replaced the half-fit Barkley with the half-fit Pienaar and that planted the seeds of the eventual revival. The little South African is simply better at anyone else in the squad at changing the pace of the game, with his awareness and the cleverness of his passing. For such a slightly built individual he is also better than any of the club’s centre-forwards at shielding the ball, getting his head up and bringing others into play. What’s more, when the ball goes into Pienaar’s feet his teammates make run beyond him, confident that he will at the very least retain possession or force a foul.

In short: when he plays, we play.

Martinez’s second successful substitution came on 70 minutes when he withdrew John Stones and introduced Steven Naismith. Quite the opposite to Mirallas, the Scot lacks pace so struggles to make an impact away from home, but he does the basics well enough as a centre-forward that he has his uses at home when the Toffees are on top and pinning opponents back. He also freed Mirallas up to drop a bit deeper, away from the close attentions of the Villa central defenders, and the Belgian’s influence grew markedly from that point.

Only four minutes after coming on, Naismith put Everton back on level terms as he ran onto Pienaar’s clever flicked pass in behind the Villa defence and poked the ball past Brad Guzan.

The visitors offered almost nothing in attack throughout – they are a dismal side managed by a once highly-thought-of manager who now just looks like he should be sat alone at night in a dim pool of light at a motorway McDonalds, reducing a Styrofoam cup to tiny pieces, kneading his forehead almost violently and pleading into his phone: ‘I know I said I’d leave her but it’s just not that simple, you know that. We’ve been through all this already…’

If there was to be any justice, and there often isn’t in football, then only one side was going to go on and win the match.

And guess what, they did!

There’s definitely been a change in Mirallas in the last month or so. He was actually one of the disappointments of the early part of the Martinez reign as everyone else’s game seemed to be lifted but he looked less effective playing the more patient style. He seems to have realised that he is a senior player now though, especially in the face of the present injury crisis, and is taking on a level of responsibility more commensurate with someone of his undoubted ability.

It was Mirallas’s persistence that initially won a free kick on 85 minutes, fully 30 yards from the Villa goal. Are you useless at gauging them distances normally? Thankfully Match of the Day confirmed it was that far with a handy infostatistographic.

Talking of the BBC’s flagship sports show, a couple of points. Firstly, them dead long spindly hairs that stick out of the top of Alan Hansen’s shirt and move in time to his wobbling turkey neck – once you see them you can’t unsee them and they will knock you sick every time he’s on now.

Secondly, Andy Carroll’s sending off at against Swansea. Which bit made Bobby Moore spin in his grave worse, Chico Flores holding his face like he’d taken a right-hander off Ernie Shavers or celebrated Geordie hard-case Carroll furiously removing his scrunchy as he stormed down the tunnel?

Top-knot titheads.

Anyway, with both Mirallas and Leighton Baines shaping up over the free kick, Guzan had to try and hedge his bets. Despite the distance though, the American keeper, who looks like a methodical FBI agent in one of those yellow-stencilled jackets who reluctantly has to deal with the unorthodox methods of a detective he doesn’t trust but who gets results in bizarre cases and let’s face it we’re coming up with nothing but dead ends here looking for the missing girl, was helpless as Mirallas struck what Paul Lambert described as ‘a world class free kick’. He also added: ‘There’s nothing you can do about that’.

There were nervy moments at the end when Villa forced a corner. We’ve suffered late disappointments against these before – Ashley Young, you doe-eyed twat – but not this time, buddy.

It wasn’t always pretty, but all things considered it what was required and what was eventually deserved. You could see that Martinez wasn’t just talking out of his arse when he said it was the most satisfying win of his time in charge so far.

Finally, a quick word on the transfer window. The biggest thing to point out is that Kenwyne Jones looked mustard for Cardiff City on his debut. Everton themselves missed a trick by getting their two targets in so early. Lacina Traore they should have signed but kept it quiet and then only announced it at 11.30pm on deadline day. Everyone would have been made up then. It would have looked like a veritable swoopy coup. And he would be that bit closer to actual match fitness.

John Heitinga has gone to Fulham, to join their collection of arl arses who just fancy living in London for a bit. The Dutchman had his moments, and was apparently wildly popular with the other players, but overall he always retained that look of the panic buy he was – one who got paid more than he was ultimately worth. He had the one decent season at centre-half, scored that last gasp goal at Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup, but best of all probably was the way he barged into Ashley Cole during that penalty shootout at Stamford Bridge.

Oh, Everton’s accounts were published too. Without even looking at them it’s probably fair to assume that we are not going to be making any massive signings any time soon, the debt remains about the same, we spend a fucking immoral amount on player wages but we get a ton of money from the telly deals so like the rest of the Premier League basket-cases we will shuffle on regardless for another season at least.

You can probably get more detailed analysis than that but that’s what any fancy number talk will boil down to, ultimately.

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Stevenage and the Derby and That

‘Don’t look down, lad. Don’t look down. I’ve got some good news for you and some bad news. The good news is that it’s not soft tissue damage…’

The tale of Everton’s trip to Stevenage should have been about how the Blues made a mockery of the banana-skin-seeking BT Sport cameras and put on one of those gulf-in-class-underlining performances that always seemed to be de rigeur for most of the Premier League apart from us. However, this professional and controlled display from Roberto Martinez’s Blues was overshadowed almost totally by a gruesome injury to Bryan Oviedo.

Playing in midfield and gamely tackling back, the versatile Costa Rican got his legs tangled up in the definitive ‘innocuous challenge’ – they’re often far worse than even the really ‘ocuous’ ones – and ended up on the deck. He tried to get up, his leg didn’t, and now he will miss the rest of the season and possibly the World Cup in Brazil.

Rotten luck and that ain’t no lie.

It’s a shame for anyone to suffer such a serious injury, but it seems particularly cruel on someone who has waited as long for their opportunity as cult hero Oviedo has. Now, footballing cult figures fit several archetypes, but they are mostly energetic yard-dogs, locally born hard cases, simple ale tanks or just good goalscorers who bite white people.  The smiling, Sapphic-haired Central American though has won over the Everton supporters for the way, when called upon after so long, he stepped up and seamlessly filled the boots of one of the club’s brightest stars, Leighton Baines.

Taking his sadly historic goal at Old Trafford smoother than a Kenco coffee bean then only cemented his place in the hearts and minds of Blues who all seem gutted for someone who appears to be a genuinely good egg too. He might not be, like, he might be a right little ratbag for all we know, but he always comes across as a fairly unassuming and pleasant sort – there are definitely plenty of players in the Premier League more deserving of having their leg kicked the fuck off. But we’ll probably get to some of them in the second bit.

Oviedo won’t feature for the rest of the season now, which is a genuine loss to Everton, but everyone hopes that he at least manages to get fit in time for the World Cup and comes back next season ready to carry on where he left off for the Toffees.

In better fullback news, the man whose metronome consistency kept the Latin livewire out of the first team for so long, the aforementioned Leighton Baines, has finally agreed a new four-year deal that should keep him at Goodison until he is 33. That’s the proverbial ‘coup’ because, as we never really tire of saying, Baines is just about the textbook definition of an Everton player.

‘Supports Liverpool and never won anything.’ Yes, very good at the back, very droll. If you have to have it explained then you will never really understand. He just is, possibly in the way that Steven Gerrard is more of less the definitive Liverpool player.

And you can take that however you please.

Everton did have far too much for Stevenage, despite the changes to the squad, with Steven Naismith leading the line well in the absence of the rested Romelu Lukaku. The Scot scored two goals, with the first teed up by the impressive full-debutant Aiden McGeady. Granted, it was only a Division One fullback the Irishman was skinning but considering he hasn’t played much first team football in the last six months he looked lively enough and full of running.

Substitutes Johnny Heitinga and Magaye Gueye – did you have him last goal as well? – rounded off the scoring and their mere inclusions underlined the sorry state the squad is in at present. And that’s a shame, because with our best team you genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if we went to Anfield and buried them like a pet, especially after watching their game against Aston Villa the other weekend.

With so many players missing though, you can’t have the same level of belief. A load are said to be borderline in terms of fitness, but even if they can patch up the likes of Ross Barkley and Steven Pienaar, will they be sharp enough to shine in what is a pretty tough ground for any side, never mind us?

Having said all that, despite the dent to our ambitions caused by all the injuries we still probably go with more belief than ever simply because of what’s gone before this season. The confidence that the players have and the style of football we employ under Martinez are what saw us completely outplay the Reds for long periods at Goodison, for instance, as well as also beating Chelsea there before winning away at Manchester United and then terrifying the life out of Arsenal at the Emirates when almost everyone still believed that they might actually win the title this season.

In short, nobody really has a clue of what to expect from this game. Anything seems possible under Martinez – you wouldn’t be at all surprised if some youngster like John Stones was forced to play and had an absolute stormer, while Lukaku, who must be due a decent game, could have Liverpool’s centre-halves looking over their shoulders more warily than Linda Nolan on Top of the Pops. On the other hand, their front two are clearly a genuine danger for anyone, with mantrap molars in particular proving particularly troublesome for even the sturdiest Blues’ defences since he’s been there. Therefore it’s certainly no great stretch to imagine him running riot against any makeshift back-line.

It’s undoubtedly an intriguing game then, because are so many new variables after years of these games having a fairly settled pattern, but whether it is ‘the biggest derby in years’ as it is being billed seems questionable. With so many points still to play for, and plenty of matches remaining against the division’s other top teams, nothing will be settled on Tuesday night, whatever the outcome.

So then, with all that to reflect on, and in something of a break from tradition, we leave the final words to none other than smoky-eyed shite-spieler Mr Brendan Rodgers.

‘When I came in here Everton had finished above Liverpool and last season finished above us also.

‘Everton’s basis is a good defensive record, still stable from what they have been over a few years – we are a team who have upped the ante in terms of our offensiveness.’

Everton 2 Norwich City 0

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Welcome to Goodison Park.

Wipe your feet and leave the points at the door.

Chris Hughton’s Norwich were simply the latest in a long line of barbecue-coated Christians thrown to Roberto’s rampant lions in the County Road Coliseum.

And if that appears condescending towards the Canaries then it’s meant to. That’s right, every head-patting, dismissive comment goes out to the outraged denizens of that forum who were hoping to ‘stuff our words down our throats’.

Look, look, he’s talking about us!

In the unlikely event that Norwich had escaped without a routine hiding, by an Everton side that never even needed the explosive skills of the injured Ross Barkley, you could bet on the life of your seven foot sibling who you keep in the wood shed that they would have been giving it the proverbial large one in the comments here.

So, to quote Delia – oh yeah, he’s going to do it, he’s going to be THAT obvious – where are you? WHERE ARE YOU? Let’s be ‘aving you…

Not really, we’re not interested in your bumpkin banter in the slightest. Sorry to build your hopes up like that.

The game itself was kind of routine for the first 70 minutes or so. Everton firstly unveiled Aiden Bad Kecks on the pitch and then had most of the possession and did most of the attacking while the visitors sat back, tried to frustrate the Blues and hoped that they could snatch something on the break through the distinctly misfiring Ricky van Wolkswinkel or from the dangerous set-pieces of Robert Snodgrass.

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Romelu Lukaku missed a sitter when he bottled out of running into the post and glanced his header wide, but before you could say ‘we need to turn some of this possession into goals’ Gareth Barry collected a pass from the Belgian on 23 minutes, advanced unchallenged and then BA-DOOM!, let fly with a swerving shot that almost scorched the Park End net. If John Ruddy got anything on it he would have been left dancing around with his hands tucked in his armpits like someone who gets a bowl out the oven using a deceptively damp tea towel.

For all the great passing, positional interchanging and playing through, between, on, around and even despite the lines, Everton are thrashing home some old fashioned ‘FUCK OFF!’ blammers this season.

Rumour has it that it’s because David Moyes never allowed the players to shoot.

True story that.

On 59 minutes Leighton Baines, back in the side and reminding everyone just what a footballer he is, was fouled 10 yards outside the Norwich area. Just as someone was saying ‘Is there anyone apart from Wayne Rooney who takes more free-kicks and thinks he’s boss at them without scoring than Mirallas’ the scruff’s-dog-on-a-bit-of-rope-faced winger curled the ball inside Ruddy’s right-hand post to the delight of all the Evertonians but especially the lad in the hat sat behind Martinez who on Match of the Day appeared to be up completely losing his shit with furious delight before the ball even left Mirallas’s foot.

Talking of televised celebrations, you have to say ‘fair play’ to Kevin Nolan and Joe Cole for the way they went nuts when Mark Noble scored against Cardiff. They weren’t putting that on.

Back to Everton though. With 20 minutes to go Martinez withdrew Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman, replacing them with John Heitinga and Steven Naismith, switched to a three-man defence and then watched as the visitors began to pour forward.

It’s hard to know what exactly caused the change in the pattern of the game – was it Hughton introducing the tricky Nathan Redmond and his players simply taking more risks or was it down to Everton’s unfamiliar formation? There’s also the fact that the often understated and often underrated Osman and Pienaar are crucial in the way the Toffees keep the ball.

It’s as much about the passes that the pair of little schemers don’t play as the ones they do.

They are soccer jazz.

Whatever the reason, Norwich threatened the age-old Goodison ‘fingernail finale’ as Bradley bleedin’ Johnson became Lothar Mattheus and the Blues’ defence was put under more pressure than we are used to seeing at home. Tim Howard was not to be beaten though and the Blues eventually saw out the little spell of quite endearing Norwich pluck. There was even time for a quite marvelous display of tenacity and skill from Naismith as he out-fought and then skinned two hapless yellow-shirted stooges out on the touchline.

Points in the bag then, as well as the first new signing, and rumours that another big Belgian unit is in line to replace Nikica Jelavic when the Croatian is dragged kicking and screaming to Hull City.

‘Seriously, no one else? Just Hull? What sort of agent are you?’

One piece of good news for Jelavic is that he is no longer in line for the worst penalty of the season award. That’s now nailed on for Jason Puncheon thanks to his creation of rare beauty at White Hart Lane. Fancy achieving your dream of becoming a professional player and then being known only for one of the worst spot kicks ever taken and going for a Tom Tit halfway through a match.

Bravo sir, bravo.

Sunderland and Southampton and That

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The games are officially coming all Darren Huckerby now – that’s right, ‘thick and fast’ – so once again we adopt the lazy-arse scattergun approach of talking about what’s going on, Toffee-wise, at the moment.

Systems are no substitute for intelligence

The horrendous snafuckup that blew the Sunderland game was more down to poor decision-making than the Roberto Martinez ‘method’. Granted, if you watched a lot of Wigan Athletic over the last few seasons you would be forgiven that horrific blunders at the back were an integral feature of the Spaniard’s philosophy, but the responsibility for ‘doing a Caldwell’ has to lie with the players.

After all, it’s not as if our goalies have never rolled the ball out before during the past century or so of football at Goodison.

That said, if you do it every time without fail it does become a bit predictable and maybe encourages the opposition to make that bit more effort to pressurise the outfield player receiving the ball. Again though, it’s down to the players to make the right decisions – it’s not enough to take unnecessary risks at the back and then simply shrug and say ‘the manager told me to do it’ when it all goes cigar shaped.

Incidentally, a lot of people have said that Tim Howard made a further error by bringing down the Sunderland player and getting sent off. In that split second though, his instinct will have been to stop a goal. He tried to make a save but Ki Sung-Yeung was a bit too quick for him. It’s easy with hindsight to suggest he should have allowed the Korean to walk the ball in, but could you imagine the scenes at Goodison if he had stood there and ushered him forward like a footman doing the ‘your carriage awaits’ sweep of the arm towards an open net?

We need to talk about Romelu

With 10 men you need a heroic performance from your centre-forward, unfortunately though ours is having a horrible time at the moment.

Romelu Lukaku looked like an utter phenomenon when he first arrived at Everton but in the last month he seems to have fallen apart. A key feature of Everton’s play has become brilliant moves culminating with Lukaku and Ross Barkley shaking their heads at each other and pointing at completely different areas of the pitch as the ball dribbles out for a goal kick,  even during the majestic team performances at Manchester United and Arsenal, .

We’ve said it before but the burly Belgian needs to get back to basics. He has to accept that he can’t always have 30 yards of pitch to run into with defenders bouncing off him like Jonah Lomu, and that 90% of being a centre-forward involves getting the better of the jiu-jitsu skirmishes with the centre-half and taking your lumps for the team. Drifting out to the wings and making applause-prompting loping jogs to hurry the keeper up are all well and good, if you want to be Marcus Bent, but Lukaku apparently wants to be the best striker in the world.

When Nikica Jelavic is coming on and showing you up by winning a simple free-kick you know you need to have a look at what you are doing.

When we played Arsenal and they started getting a bit of joy towards the end of the first half, it was because Olivier Giroud was standing strong on the edge of the box and the attacking midfielders were confident that they could fire a pass into his feet, make a run past him and he would hold the defender off and try and ‘turn the ball around the corner’ for them. Everton are crying out for a bit of that simple stuff at the moment, especially given how much possession they have just outside the opponents’ box.

There’s no lack of effort by Lukaku – if anything he’s trying too hard.

How will Martinez cope with his first hint of adversity?

Two games away from going the whole year unbeaten at home, facing a team bottom of the league who traditionally get prison-petted all over the place at Goodison – ka-blammo, 1-0 reverse.

Everton that.

As they say.

Apparently.

It’s not a crisis, or even a mini crisis. Hell, it doesn’t even merit the term ‘crisette’, but things have been running so smoothly this season that even one rather unlucky defeat at home feels like a bit of a blow.

Anyway, as a result of that game the new Blues’ boss now has some selection problems ahead of facing a more than decent Southampton team.

Joel Robles obviously comes straight in for Howard while presumably Leon Osman, after having a good long think about just what he did on Boxing Day, gets to try and redeem himself in midfield alongside Ross Barkley and James McCarthy.

Gareth Barry’s experience will certainly be missed against a wily sort of Saints team – the wide-waisted former England man was magnificent again organising the 10 man assault on Sunderland in the second half on Sunday. Given that he is almost certainly the slowest player in the Premier League he should be getting mugged off constantly, but his first touch, anywhere from the neck down, is so immaculate, and he shields the ball so effortlessly, that it is almost never a problem.

12 months ago you would never have imagined that we would all have a massive man crush on a player famous only for trailing in the wake of Mezut Ozil – can’t do the Umlaut – and that the form of Bryan Oviedo would have people weighing up whether a decent bid for Leighton Baines might be worth considering.

Something about Southampton

Their jowly young-Homer-Simpson-haired manager Mauricio Pochettino has essentially become the poster boy for sacking popular managers who appear to be doing ok. And for people who like to pass off as their own deep insights into the game the shite they read in the paper and hear on Match of the Day – for instance that clueless Portsmouth supporter on The Football Ramble when he does his ‘but seriously now, it’s just not good enough’ voice – it’s de rigeur that you mention Saints’ ‘high pressing game’ whenever discussing them this season.

So we just have.

They have some decent players and are ‘coming off the back of’ a good win at Cardiff City. Incidentally, can you wait to see who takes over there? Or even better, listen to their first press conference when they are asked about working for Vincent Tan?

‘I know what you’re saying like, but, you know, we’ve all got to put a loaf on the table, lad’.

And that’s where this thing just sort of peters out, almost apologetically.