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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Everton 4 Stoke City 0

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First of all, an apology. Last week, while musing on how Roberto Martinez would cope with the absence of Leighton Baines, we deduced that Bryan Oviedo’s absence from the derby squad meant that the Everton manager doesn’t rate him. In fact, the term ‘a bit shit’ was used.

Well, the Costa Rican started against Stoke City and was excellent. Granted, he wasn’t up against much, but he was full of running and supported the attack superbly, scoring one goal and creating another, to the extent that Baines wasn’t missed in the slightest. You really couldn’t ask for much more from an understudy getting his chance in the spotlight.

Similarly we hold our hands up to Gerard Deulofeu, who we might have labelled one of the few disappointments of the season so far in an interview with United We Stand. In his appearances before Saturday he always played with an air of ‘I know we lost 4-1, but my goal was a cracker wasn’t it’, but starting here in place of Kevin Mirallas he was, at times, absolutely electric.

Ok then while we’re at it, Martinez as well. Admit it though, you pulled your face a bit too when you heard Mirallas and Ross Barkley were being rested. It just had the feeling of something that could backfire spectacularly, but the Everton boss has the magic touch at the moment and this slightly ‘rotated’ side gave their most complete performance of the season.

Stoke, for their part, are clearly in a ‘transition period’. Mark Hughes is trying to get them to play more football, which is to be lauded as they were mostly a disgrace under Tony Pulis, but at the moment he is trying to do that with a squad of players that was assembled in order to intimidate, not entertain. As a result of that they seem caught between two stools.

Neither swish nor foul, if you like.

Everton, on the other hand, have loads of good footballers and with Steven Pienaar pulling the strings expertly they played the visitors off the park. Stoke never lacked for effort though, not while the game was goalless at least, and the game might have panned out differently had they achieved their initial aim of getting to half time level. However, Deulofeu, who had already seen Asmir Begovic make a smart save from a free-kick, capped off a dizzying move on 45 minutes, exchanging one-twos with Pienaar and then Gareth Barry before clipping the ball inside the near post.

Whatever Hughes said to his side during the break was rendered moot only four minutes after the restart when Deulofeu broke down the left and his low cross eventually came to the onrushing Seamus Coleman whose awkward volley sliced weirdly across the goal, leaving Begovic helpless as it spun into the far corner.

It was all over from that point. Stoke had come looking to frustrate Everton and take a point. They weren’t equipped to overturn a two-goal deficit but had to go through the motions and in the process simply exposed themselves to one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league.

Begovic saved from point-blank range following a, let’s just put it out there, ‘Messi-esque’ run from sly eyes Deulofeu, but was again left without a prayer on 58 minutes when Oviedo took the long way around Charlie Adam’s wide load and smashed a 20-yard shot home off the foot of the post.

Talking of old ginger-sidies, did anyone else think the extent of the lusty booing he got when substituted seemed well out of proportion to his whole Kopite career? Oh, and while we’re on the subject of that sort of thing, a quick message to Cardiff City supporters – not that there will be any reading this. What is with you absolute lickspittles, applauding Aaron Ramsey for stuffing two goals past you? Fair enough, some of you meekly argued that wearing red instead of blue is a price worth paying to be in the Premier League, but that doesn’t mean you have to abase yourselves at every opportunity, does it?

Those scenes were even worse than when the Portsmouth support famously dropped their knickers for Thierry Henry.

But back to Everton, who far from applauding the opposition, have no qualms about openly and freely criticising one of their own players – even one who looks likely to finish as their highest goalscorer since Gary Lineker. Loads of people after the game commented about how shite Romelu Lukaku played, but the big Belgian still managed to score, turning home Oviedo’s low cross on 79 minutes.

It was all the stuff we’ve mentioned before, about how flaky he looks with his back to goal and how he should be giving defenders a far tougher time. It might seem overly harsh given his goalscoring record but there will be games when we are up against it and we will need him to do the basics better and win some free-kicks. If he wants to reach his almost unlimited potential as well, and be as good or better than the player he supposedly wants to emulate, Didier Drogba, it’s that unglamorous, old-fashioned centre-forward stuff he needs to work on.

Before we get too dismissive of him though, we need to bear in mind what we’d be working with if Martinez hadn’t secured his loan at the eleventh hour of the transfer window, and substitute Nikica Jelavic served a reminder when played clean through in the dying minutes and shot apologetically straight at Begovic.

However, none of those asides should detract from a great afternoon. As one wise Park Ender remarked: ‘It’s great isn’t it, a couple of hours in the pub and then watch Everton batter someone. We don’t ask for much’.

And indeed there are few more life-affirming feelings than leaving the ground, bathing in the hazy orange glow of County Road and breathing in the coppery winter air following a proper school of science showing from those famous boys in blue.

We really don’t ask for much at all.

Everton 2 Hull City Tigers 1

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Everton v Hull City - Goodison Park

A surprisingly evenly-matched contest had its tipping point after almost an hour, and fittingly it involved a player who is looking more and more like Malcolm Gladwell.

Steven Pienaar, on as a substitute for Leon Osman, finished off a flowing breakaway involving Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas. With a wonderfully assured first-touch-of-a-ball-in-anger-in-six-weeks he clipped the Belgian winger’s low centre along the rain-soaked turf and into the bottom corner of the Park End goal. It was probably the best thing Pienaar’s done all season, as he was less than stellar during the few games he played before his injury; perhaps there is something to Roberto Martinez’s theory then that being out for ages makes you a better player. And we all scoffed.

The Blues’ boss, resplendent in a velvet-collared ‘nylons for the lady?’ war-time profiteer’s coat looked on bemused like everyone else in the ground as Pienaar lept over the advertising hoardings to correct the orientation of a South African flag behind the goal. By the time he was ready to celebrate with his teammates they had all retreated to the halfway line – the moment had gone and he just looked like a bit of a weirdo.

And talking of divvy celebrations, Mirallas’s ‘going over that waterfall at the climax of The Mission‘ schtick is starting to look a bit self-indulgent, especially for a goal that was only his by dint of a piece of chicanery.

On 8 minutes an Everton corner was half-cleared back out to Leighton Baines and he fed the ball to Osman who in turn teed up Mirallas to shoot low through the crowd of players in the box. Gareth Barry, returning from an off-side position, gave the ball a slight flick as it ran through his legs and Allan McGregor was left stationary as it crept into the bottom corner. Barry cracked on he never touched the shot but it was pretty clear at the time and then confirmed on the telly later.

Say what you like about Steve Bruce – that his face looks like a bag of fruit and veg, whatever – he had a few gripes about Barry’s contribution and they were all pretty valid. Not only did the Everton midfielder get away with the goal, he was also very lucky to receive just a single yellow card for two dubious challenges in the first half.

He first went unpunished for a high boot on Danny Graham that saw the dreadful striker stretchered off with a knee injury. Barry was actually cautioned for the next challenge, when his foot rolled right over the top of the ball and almost took Sone Aluko’s leg off, but it wasn’t just Bruce who expected to see the referee give a straight red. The Everton man got away with it though, although there was a degree of payback from the Tigers when, on 30 minutes, Aluko skinned Baines and cut the ball back for Graham’s replacement, Yannick Sagbo, to crack the ball home at the near post.

The equaliser had certainly been coming at that point. Hull have some decent players, and that ones that aren’t decent are at least absolutely massive. Every set-piece saw pandemonium in the Everton box and the visitors headed a handful of decent chances just wide of Tim Howard’s goal.

Hull’s ‘physicality’ – when did people start using that word? – wasn’t the only issue in the first 45 minutes though. Most of Everton’s problems were actually of their own making as they failed to adapt to Bruce’s team putting pressure on the ball-playing central defenders. Their ploy of initially leaving Sylvain Distin as the outlet and then hounding him in possession wasn’t particularly devious but, crikey, it was effective as Everton endured sustained periods where they looked like the team we feared they would become when Roberto Martinez took over.

Some of the one-touch stuff down in the left corner in particular, between Barry, Baines and Distin was cringe-making. There are still times when Everton players are side-footing first-time passes into space with no idea whatsoever who is around and that’s just as bad as wellying the ball aimlessly downfield. No, in fact it’s worse, because at least with the long ball you are taking a chance on losing possession in their half and not a snot-rocket away from your own penalty area.

At its very basic level football is about making your opponent think you are going to do one thing and then doing the other, so robotically passing the ball regardless of what the other team are up to makes no sense at all. The players should be able to work that out for themselves. ‘Imagine what Suarez will do if we play like that’ was a comment made by more than one tense Toffee at the break, and it doesn’t bear thinking about as the lavishly dentured Uruguayan already gives Distin worse nightmares than a drowned clown with crows pecking at its eyes.

Thankfully Martinez gave the team a talk at half time about a space-monkey that always got fed bananas until NASA told his astronaut companion to occasionally feed him nuts instead. No one was sure whether it was racist, or whether monkeys actually eat nuts, but before anyone could speak to the press the Everton manager rolled the sleeve of his coat up to the elbow and asked whether anyone wanted to buy a watch.

Possibly.

Everton were certainly less lemming-like with their use of the ball in the second half anyway and the introduction of Pienaar and, to a certain extent Stephen Naismith and Aroune Kone in place of the subdued Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, pepped them up a bit for the closing stages. Hull appeared to run out of steam too as the exertion of their ‘pressing game’ – ‘getting stuck in’ in old money – eventually took its toll.

All that really remained – apart from a harsh Baines booking for diving – was a strange cameo for Kone as he curled an absolute sitter against the post and then forced a good low save from McGregor. It just seems really weird how the Ivorian has gone ‘full Jelavic’ before his Everton career has even begun. Generally his touch and his movement here were sound if unspectacular but he still looked like a complete confidence-vacuum. The majority of the crowd appear to, well, not hate him, but view him as a joke figure already, which is possibly even worse.

It’s a certainty that we are going to have to rely on this chap at some point during the season though so we really could do with him blamming one in soon just to give him some shred of self esteem and maybe nip in the bud the corrosive effects of the dreaded Goodison groan.

It wasn’t vintage stuff from Everton then, but you have to give Hull some credit and applaud Martinez for making the changes, to the approach and the personnel, that edged the Blues ahead in what was a very competitive game.

Everton and Fulham and Sunderland and that

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To be honest, there’s not a lot to be said about the Sunderland defeat, but to not even give it a mention would give the impression that we only ‘report’ on games in which Everton don’t lose.

It was watched in some Australian bar on the Rembrandtsplein in Amsterdam through a fog of Amstel and the only abiding memory is of a big spray of what appeared to be blood up the middle of the screen and, even more horrifically, Leighton Baines’s mis-placed pass to Stephane Sessegnon. The Benin international – is there a better fact in the modern football than that? – hit a great low shot that Tim Howard got a hand on but couldn’t quite keep from the bottom corner of his goal.

And that was that. Everton never mustered a chance worthy of the name.

On to the Fulham game and, in the absence of Darron Gibson, David Moyes chose to play with both Victor Anichebe and Nikica Jelavic up front against more or less the softest opposition anyone could hope to face at this time of year. You couldn’t hand pick better bums than the Cottagers for Jelavic to try and rebuild his confidence against, but once again the Croatian who used to score in his sleep looked as frustrated as a one-armed midget trying to change a duvet cover. His whole demeanour screamed ‘What’s the fucking point – you know and I know that this is a waste of time’. And indeed it was.

It’s utterly bizarre to see a player who looked so accomplished so recently struggle to do even the basics, like standing up and running for instance. When he was replaced by Ross Barkley with 20 minutes remaining the whole ground just seemed relieved for him that the ordeal was over.

Still, Jelavic apart, Everton are better than Fulham and have moderately more to play for, and it showed from the outset. The winning goal, on 16 minutes, certainly came as no surprise to anyone. A lovely move that encapsulated the best of this present side saw Kevin Mirallas, Leon Osman and Seamus Coleman exchange quick-fire passes down the right before the Irish fullback cut the ball back for Steven Pienaar to neatly side-foot home.

They really have played some great stuff this season and you can only wonder how much closer to the Champions League places they might have finished with an in-form goalscorer. Someone to convert a decent portion of the chances that Baines alone creates would make the Europa League a formality for next season at the very least.

In the second half the England fullback fashioned an absolute sitter for Marouane Fellaini with a cross that cut out the whole Fulham defence and left Mark Scwharzer stranded in no-man’s land, but the wiggy-headed Walloon somehow kicked the ball into the ground and watched as it bounced over the bar.

Mirallas had a great juggle and shot palmed over by Schwarzer who then made a simpler stop when Barkley’s finish at the end of a strong run had too much of the Hollywood about it – a snidey toe-poke might have been more effective than the medium-paced top-corner curler.

There remained then the nagging risk of a seat-clattering afternoon-spoiler from Fulham. Urby ‘Ancock’ Emmanuelson sliced an effort just wide and the whole of Goodison looked on with a mix of dread and morbid fascination when Philipe Senderos, who despite working outdoors always has the pallor of an earthworm exposed under a paving slab, embarked on a run down the right and into the box that could only really be described as ‘slaloming’.

Luckily the Everton goal remained unsullied and the Blues go into the derby five points clear of Liverpool.

So then, in a rare request for audience participation, what’s your prediction for the run in?

Our team of top soccer statisticians predict a draw at Anfield that appears to put the ball firmly in our court but that will then be followed by an outrageously ‘Everton’ cock up and only one point at home to West Ham. Chelsea away will yield the stubbornly defended but inevitable defeat, especially if they still need points to qualify for the Champions League.

If it does pan out that way, given that Liverpool’s last match is at home to QPR their chance of pipping us on goal difference to the ‘best of the next of the rest who don’t even get into the Europa League’ trophy – otherwise billed as ‘local bragging rights’ – will hinge on them the winning at Craven Cottage. And judging on Fulham’s performance on Saturday, yadda, etc. and so forth.

Please note that This Is Not Football accepts no responsibility whatsoever for any or all of the arithmetic above being completely and utterly flawed.