Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dem's the breaks

Everton 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

We may have rode our luck, twice falling behind and twice relieved at the incompetence of the officials ruling out legitimate Everton goals, but a brace from Demba Ba plundered a very welcome point on a ground where in recent years we've struggled to do anything other than capitulate.

Not that the first half implied that this visit would be any different. The Silver Fox, who viewed the game from a vantage point in the stands out of necessity rather than choice, declared that our display in those first 45 minutes had left him "shocked": "We were as bad as we've ever been since I've been in charge". He insisted that the fundamental problem was a curious lack of belief - true enough, but that deflects attention away from his choice of personnel, having opted for a lone striker in Papiss Cisse, Ba making way for the extra midfielder Sylvain Marveaux. The injuries to Tim Krul, Danny Simpson and Sideshow Bob meant that Steve Harper, Mike Williamson and Perchinho deputised.

Everton seized the initiative from the whistle, Nikica Jelavic marginally offside when he slid in to knock the ball over the line from barely a yard before colliding with the post - an incident which meant he limped off before the break. By that point, though, our hosts were firmly in control, thanks in no small part to the combination play of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar down their left. The latter seems to have picked up exactly where he left off before that hugely disappointing spell on the sidelines at Spurs, while the former set about exploiting a lacklustre and ill-disciplined (in positional terms) performance from Marveaux with considerable relish, operating almost like an extra winger. It was Spidermag, though, who lost the England left-back when he exchanged quick passes with Pienaar, burst into the area and drove a low shot beyond Harper.

Further opportunities came and went for the Toffees. With Dreamboat utterly anonymous, Marouane Fellaini was bossing central midfield while his compatriot Kevin Mirallas buzzed about industriously, whizzing one shot narrowly past the post and warming Harper's palms with others. However, the closest Everton came to extending the lead their dominance merited was courtesy of central defender Phil Jagielka, whose skimming half-volley flicked the outside of Harper's far post.

We were largely woeful - overrun when they were in possession and hounded into errors on those brief occasions when we had the ball. Even still, there exists a bizarre parallel universe in which we could have gone into the half-time break in front. Marveaux's one telling contribution was to swing in a free-kick that wasn't properly cleared, allowing Cisse to stroke a shot just wide of the post with Tim Howard rooted to the spot. We came even closer soon afterwards, HBA's cut-back bundled towards goal by a combination of Vurnon Anita and Leon Osman only for that man Baines to excel in his defensive duties and hack it off the line.

If the Silver Fox must shoulder some responsibility for that shoddy first-half performance, then he should also receive much credit for taking bold tactical decisions to remedy the situation. Marveaux was unsurprisingly the player to make way for Ba (it seems odd to have chosen him in the first place - if he'd wanted Ba's replacement in the starting XI to operate on the right-hand side of midfield, surely Obertan Kenobi would have been a more obvious option?). He also sought to bandage up the Achilles heel Everton had targeted by swapping Perchinho and Anita positionally.

It didn't take long for those decisions to be vindicated. Perchinho brought stability and assurance in defensive midfield, while the Dutch international's pace was crucial in nullifying the threat of Baines and Pienaar. It was Ba, though, who made the most immediate impact, just four minutes after leaving the bench. Dreamboat suddenly seemed to wake up, robbing Osman in a promising position and slotting one of his perfect diagonal passes through for the Senegalese striker to finish expertly.

From that point forth, we were a team transformed. Cisse, who often cut an isolated, frustrated figure in the first half, now had a partner and Everton's central defence now had a significant challenge on their hands. He almost scored one of his trademark spectaculars, trying to lob Howard on the volley following a truly Brazilian-esque lofted ball from Perchinho, and the Newcastle corner count started to mount.

Nevertheless, Everton continued to get chances of their own, both Osman and Pienaar guilty of missing the target, while mushroom-haired midfielder Fellaini was unlucky to see a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside. If the home team were aggrieved at that injustice, then they were positively baying for blood when Jelavic's replacement Victor Anichebe saw his header cross our line off the underside of the bar, only for the officials to decide Williamson had punted it away safely in the nick of time. And, as if that wasn't enough, referee Mike Jones compounded the errors by halting a three-on-one break (in our favour) to issue a yellow card to one of the Toffees' number. HBA - not alone in being far more effective in the second period - was the player stopped in his tracks then, but he got another opportunity to scamper clear of the defence shortly afterwards, only for Howard to foil him with an excellent block.

And then the dramatic finale. Anichebe struck first, outwitting Saylor and Harper with a neat turn and firm shot into the bottom corner. But, with injury time just seconds away, route one football reaped rewards. Williamson's long hoof was chested on by Big Lad, who had been introduced for the once-again-goalless Cisse, leaving Ba to prod home from close range. Up until the interval, when he was summoned for, he'd presumably spent his time on the bench guzzling strawberry syrup in preparation.

While it may not have been a win, or even a consistent and coherent performance, this was a far more satisfying result than our last draw, at home to Villa. The opposition were tougher and in better shape, for a start, so fighting back to parity when a side like Man Utd were dispatched from Goodison Park with a bloody nose, and particularly in light of our injury list and recent results there, constituted success.

Hopefully that stirring second half can help to kick-start a season that hasn't quite got going yet. The games are certainly coming thick and fast: Maritimo on Thursday, Norwich on Sunday, Man Utd next Wednesday, Reading the following Saturday. Taggart was in attendance at Goodison ahead of that League Cup tie next week, but the side the Silver Fox puts out for that is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the one that took to the pitch (or indeed finished the match) on Merseyside. We're more likely to blood squad and youth players in both that tournament and the Europa League, so let's hope the experience proves invaluable.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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