Gripped by the elation of a late Romelu Lukaku goal, the humdrum of Everton supporters slinking out of Goodison Park at the end of their third round FA Cup tie heralded a significant moment.
It’d be naive to brand it as a turning point and it certainly won’t be a recipe for quick fix, but the Belgian’s acrobatic finish capped off a display that could be a vital catalyst for the Toffees’ recuperation process.
Encouragingly, it was a deserved equalizer for Everton. On the back of four straight defeats—each yielding a string of stark concerns—the performance against West Ham United at least showed small signs of improvement.
Muhamed Besic enjoyed another ferocious outing in midfield, Steven Naismith was a bustling irritant, Ross Barkley conjured space in central areas to surge forward with the ball and Lukaku turned in his best performance since becoming a £28 million player last summer (more on him later).
It was a 90 minutes that was an undeniable upgrade on the moribund displays the Toffees served up over the festive period and although Roberto Martinez claiming a loss would have been “criminal” is a bit far-fetched, a draw was ultimately a fair result. From an Everton point of view, at least it was something.
The Toffees will go to Boleyn Ground for the replay next week as underdogs, but they’re still in the tournament. For a team for who cup competitions have afforded some much needed salvation this season, that’s critical. If Everton can somehow get through that tie, Doncaster Rovers or Bristol City await and suddenly, things are looking a little rosier.
It’s an enormous ask for this crop to go to East London and emerge victorious, though. Confidence is perilously fragile amongst the group and while there were positive adjustments in the aforementioned segments of the pitch, defensively the concerns remain both perennial—yet again, Sylvain Distin watched as his man made a goalscoring contribution—and worryingly pertinent; Everton have not kept a clean sheet for ten matches now.
John Stones looks to be close to making a full fledged return to the team and his insouciant steadying influence will provide some composure in a team which slapdash and panic has long been the order of the day. From Everton’s perspective, getting the young defender into the side and building a partnership with Phil Jagielka will be critical.
You suspect that partnership—which showed promising signs earlier in the season—will begin in earnest against Manchester City in the upcoming Premier League game. The champions represent a daunting proposition for a side so bereft of initiative, but that late strike from their record signing is a fillip of momentum that Evertonians—who to their credit, have sold out the match despite recent tribulations—will cling to in the build-up. Again, at least it’s something.
It was plain to see how significant a goal it was for the fans, the manager and of course, Lukaku himself. It was just reward for a rumbustious performance from the burly Belgian after he turned in a well-rounded display, benefitting from the more direct mantras Everton adopted against the Hammers.
Direct doesn’t necessarily mean aimless hoofs forward, either. The ball was played into the forward on the deck much more briskly than we’ve seen in recent weeks, allowing Lukaku to turn his man sharply and drive into space with a refreshing purpose.
While he is often perceived to be of the stylistic make-up of Didier Drogba, any Evertonian that’s watched the 21-year-old over the past 18 months will tell you that’s simply not the case. Despite his intimidating somatotype, Lukaku’s not a player that really relishes the physical battle, nor is he a forward that will dominate aerially. But if you play the ball in front of him with space to run into, then he’s a sustained threat.
Criticism of Lukaku has been a little over the top this season, perhaps spurred on by the transfer fee Everton paid for him. But the Belgian has not been utilized appropriately. He’s not a traditional back-to-goal striker—not yet, anyway—and there were signs against the Londoners that his teammates and manager are beginning to catch on to that.
From an Everton perspective, hopefully Lukaku can carry this kind of form into the Premier League, starting with the upcoming visit of the champions. It’s a game that little is expected of the Toffees, but a fervent crowd will make things difficult for City and should see Everton–hopefully galvanized by the support and the visit of an illustrious outfit—turn in another much improved display.
Even that may not be enough to get a result against City. Indeed, if Everton play like they did against West Ham, the likes of David Silva and Samir Nasri will pull the defence apart. But after the debilitatingly dank lows of the festive period it’s a case of small steps forward at his point and Lukaku’s rescue act must be the first of many.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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