x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Patchwork Everton display winning mentality in comeback against Aston Villa

Merseysiders bounce back after demoralising derby defeat

Kevin Mirallas, centre, attempts an acrobatic shot during Everton's 2-1 Premier League victory over Aston Villa at Goodison Park on Saturday. Paul Thomas/Getty Images
Kevin Mirallas, centre, attempts an acrobatic shot during Everton's 2-1 Premier League victory over Aston Villa at Goodison Park on Saturday. Paul Thomas/Getty Images

LIVERPOOL // The test of a team’s mettle tends to be how they react to a setback. When it is as crushing as the heaviest Merseyside derby defeat for three decades, when it is compounded by a crippling injury list and the concession of an early goal, it amounts to a thorough examination of both character and quality.

Everton passed it, and they did so with flying colours in a 2-1 defeat of Aston Villa on Saturday.

“It was the most satisfying victory of the season,” Everton manager Roberto Martinez said. “We are a team that never accepts defeat and that has an incredible knack of facing adversity in the right way. I couldn’t be prouder. This group of players are thirsty for success.”

And so, in the space of 20 minutes, perceptions were changed.

A season may have been reshaped. A goal behind to Aston Villa, they emerged the sole winners among the quartet of teams chasing fourth-place Liverpool. They are confounding predictions that they would fail to sustain their early-season form.

Minus a specialist striker, lacking their putative player of the year and with a creative talent only judged fit to play 45 minutes, they conjured a comeback. Martinez is a manager who allies boldness with an imaginative approach. Steven Pienaar was held in reserve and summoned for the second half.

With a semi-fit Seamus Coleman on the bench, he substituted a more defensive right-back, in John Stones, and moved midfielder James McCarthy into the back four to produce a more attacking side. Shorn of the injured Romelu Lukaku, he deployed Kevin Mirallas as a lone striker and, if the smaller Belgian struggled to replicate his more physical compatriot’s all-around game, he produced a delightful decider.

A 25-yard free kick sailed past Brad Guzan. “To win it with that moment of brilliance from Kevin is even more pleasing,” Martinez said.

His Villa counterpart, Paul Lambert, said succinctly: “A world-class free kick.”

The Scot was more aggrieved by Everton’s equaliser, which was taken calmly by the substitute Steven Naismith. It was beautifully worked: Pienaar flicking Gareth Barry’s pass into the path of his fellow replacement, who steered his shot past Brad Guzan.

“It was a poor goal from our point of view,” Lambert said. “It should never have happened.”

Yet this was the essence of Martinez’s Everton, retaining the assurance to pass when anxiety was increasingly apparent at Goodison Park.

“To be able to be patient in that moment gives me incredible pleasure,” the Spaniard said.

He took pleasure, too, in an encouraging first Premier League start from Aiden McGeady. The January recruit curled a third-minute shot against the far post. Thereafter, however, Guzan was hardly troubled until the final 20 minutes.

In between, Everton sensed an unwanted action replay. Troubled by pace on the counter-attack when Liverpool won 4-0 on Tuesday, they conceded in familiar fashion.

Villa illustrated their potency on the break when they opened the scoring. Fabian Delph robbed Ross Barkley of the ball, Leandro Bacuna swapped passes with Christian Benteke and finished clinically.

So far, so good for Villa, but then Everton showed the substance and spirit to accompany their style. They produced when it mattered.