Game of the Day: Everton 3-6 Chelsea, 2014

If he were to sum up his three-season spell as Everton manager in one word, Roberto Martinez might plump for “phenomenal”. Evertonians feeling embittered by a failure to build on a great deal of promise might go for something shorter and blunter. “Entertaining” is a fair compromise, one neutrals would certainly agree with. The Spaniard inspired some mesmerising performances, but also some defensive horror shows that at times seemed as if he was deliberately spiting David Moyes. One game summed it up better than most, if not all. It featured an instant capitulation, a modern-day legend swapping places with Aiden McGeady, three separate attempts at a comeback and a fateful backheel, all within a little over 90 minutes. A nine-goal thriller against Chelsea will go down as one of the most compelling in Everton’s recent history.

The much-maligned McGeady had in fact scored the first goal of the campaign with a fine strike against Leicester, but a late lapse in concentration meant all Everton came away with was a 2-2 draw. Seamus Coleman and Steven Naismith gave the Blues a 2-0 lead at home to Arsenal, but a late lapse in…I’m getting a feeling of déjà vu. One positive was some transfer business that looks very shrewd in retrospect; Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry signing on a permanent basis after successful loans, Muhamed Besic arriving from Ferencvaros, snapping up MK Dons’ promising defender, Brendan Galloway, and signing Samuel Eto’o on a free transfer. That’s THE Samuel Eto’o. 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year. Four-time African Player of the Year. Only back-to-back treble winner in two different countries. Scorer in two Champions League finals. The international superstar.

You sign Lambert, we sign Samuel Eto’o, Samuel Eto’o, Samuel Eto’o.

Chelsea had opened their (ultimately successful) title bid with routine 3-1 and 2-0 wins over Burnley and Leicester respectively. The trip to Goodison, the pundits reckoned, would be the first true test of their character. Jose Mourinho had his side well-prepared, and they were certainly in fine fettle. Diego Costa had already scored in each of his first two games, and Cesc Fabregas had bagged three assists. Everton had to be vigilant. They had to keep Chelsea’s potent attack at bay, and hit them on the break. Keeping the ball was important, but nothing was more pivotal to the hosts’ chances than maintaining concentration from the first minute to the last.

It took 35 seconds for Chelsea to take the lead.

Fabregas slipped the ball through to Costa. Distin, his brain still apparently in the dressing room, failed to notice the adopted Spaniard drifting into the space behind him. Given all the time in the world, Costa picked his spot and slotted the ball under Tim Howard. A poor start, but it happens. All Everton had to do was regroup and prevent Chelsea building on their early lead, to keep things tight, to put themselves in a good position to overhaul the visitor’s lead.

Chelsea made it 2-0 two minutes later.

Costa cut inside from the left and found Ramires who, standing centrally and 20 yards out, was naturally in acres of space. The midfielder slipped the ball through for Chelsea’s most advanced player – Branislav Ivanovic, strangely – and the Serbian doubled his side’s tally. Although Ivanovic was offside and Martinez could claim to feel hard done by, his side’s awful organisation had been punished twice in quick succession.

The Everton players could not have made a bigger hash of things if they had tried. And the manner of the errors was such that they could have made a fortune had they indulged in some spot-fixing. Tim Howard came charging out of his penalty area to beat Eden Hazard to the ball and then, inexplicably, decided to catch it before tumbling back into the box. Only some poor officiating spared added insult to injury, as Howard somehow got away with it.

Lukaku had a point to prove against his former employers, and after his header crashed off the crossbar, Distin scrambled the ball into the net. Unfortunately, though, the Frenchman was offside. Everton had the lion’s share of possession, but Phil Jagielka reminded the hosts of their vulnerability when caught in possession, the assistant referee’s flag potentially sparing them another Costa goal. Everton looked dangerous going forward. All they needed was a goal to halve the deficit. Moments before half-time, they found it. Coleman drifted in a cross from the left, and Kevin Mirallas arrived just in time to direct a header beyond Thibaut Courtois.

The second half began much like the first, with some slack Everton play. Another misplaced Jagielka pass was, just a couple of quick lay-offs later, translated into Costa bursting free on goal, Howard stretching to deny him. Moments later, an innocuous Chelsea throw-in turned into a disagreement between Costa and Coleman, that quickly turned into the burly striker taking a booking. That discord would re-emerge later. Not much later, it turned out, thanks in part to Hazard. He didn’t need an invitation from the Everton defence to prove it, but the Belgian was offered one anyway. Hazard had McCarthy and Coleman between him and goal, but he ghosted past the former, and his cut-back from the byline deflected off the latter, wrong-footing Howard at the near post. Costa’s over-exuberant celebration infuriated Howard, but the home crowd were fuming more with the manner of Chelsea’s third goal.

It was a tale of two Evertons: the attack, pushing for goals so effectively that on most occasions they would have secured three points, and a defence seemingly determined to undo all their hard work. Naismith was next to wrestle the hosts’ way back into the match, sliding the ball into the far corner with the outside of his right foot. A minute later, Martinez threw on Eto’o, another striker to aid the fightback. Naturally, Chelsea added another goal three minutes after that. The defence’s infuriating inability to close down any away midfielder meant Nemanja Matic had the freedom of Walton with which to hit a strike that, despite having Distin, Jagielka and Howard in the way of it, had no problem finding the back of the net.

Just 120 seconds later, it was 4-3. A free-kick found Eto’o 15 yards out. His header was perfectly placed. It beat every man in the penalty area, including a grasping Courtois. Goodison, queasy from lurching between hope and despair, met the Cameroonian’s debut goal with a defiant roar. Perhaps there was another goal in the works. Everton just had to stay calm, stop shooting themselves in the foot and grab a dramatic equaliser.

Sixty seconds later. Sixty seconds. Oh for fu-

The simplest of one-twos released Ramires, and the midfielder poked the ball past Howard. This time, the game was well and truly beyond Everton. There was time for Besic to make an appearance in the 89th minute. Well, that’s not enough time for something calamitous to happen.

Have you ever heard the sound of 35,000 palms meeting 35,000 faces? Yeah. That.

And to think, not long before, Everton had nearly made it 5-4. Coleman found Eto’o, who returned the ball with an impudent flick. The right back found Mirallas straight away, and only Courtois tipping the ball on to the post denied Everton another chance at redemption.

The ball came to Besic 35 yards out, with Mikel bearing down on him. Naturally, he thought a backheel would be a good idea. His first touch since coming on. With Everton 5-3 down. A backheel. Mikel couldn’t believe his luck. A backheel of his own was well-struck, and gave Costa the opportunity to deceive Distin with a stepover before cutting a shot across Howard and in.

Chelsea couldn’t believe their luck. They had profited from one of the most baffling performances ever seen. And that is no hyperbole. Everton’s attacking play was, at times, magnificent. The flowing passing moves and clinical finishing were worthy of a top-class side. And yet the defending was so comical, the individual mistakes so plentiful, the timely mistakes so regular, that Everton had been thrashed. They had, all at once, both taught a lesson and been taught one of their own. And having had 61 per cent of the possession to boot.

It was a proper Martinez game, alright.

 

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