Win in meeting of upwardly mobile teams sends Everton provisionally into top four
Lukaku proves difference as Everton beat Southampton
LIVERPOOL // Roberto Martinez tends to specialise in the unique. His place in history was secured in May when Wigan Athletic became the first team to win the FA Cup and get relegated in the same season.
This year’s managerial task is similarly quixotic: to secure a place in the Uefa Champions League while propelled by the goals of a player owned by another challenger for a top-four place.
Because, while this is one of the most talented squads Goodison Park has seen, Everton are disproportionately dependent on Romelu Lukaku. It was doubly significant, then, when the striker borrowed from Chelsea ended his goal drought yesterday and decided the clash of the upwardly mobile. While Southampton have slipped off the pace, Everton are showing their staying power and enter 2014 in an enviable position.
Their momentum appeared checked when the Southampton substitute Gaston Ramirez unleashed a thunderbolt that veered viciously on its way into Everton net. Then Steven Pienaar and James McCarthy combined, with the latter centring. Lukaku, with predatory expertise, dispatched his shot past Kelvin Davis.
“One of the best goals you are going to see in the league,” Martinez said.
It was also among the more timely. By the standards of Goodison’s goal-shy strikers of the past two decades, Stuart Barlow, Brett Angell, Denis Stracqualursi and the increasingly impotent Nikica Jelavic, five games without a strike scarcely counted as a blip. Not when Lukaku has more league goals than the three strikers Chelsea preferred to keep – Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba – have mustered between them. Yet considering how prolific Lukaku has been, however, it amounted to a relief when he sprinted away celebrating.
“We have never been in a position where we were a little bit worried or thought that was his only role,” said Martinez, ever one to ease the pressure on his players.
Nevertheless, Lukaku’s importance is illustrated by the identity of Everton’s second-highest scorer: a right-back who does not take set-pieces. That is also an indication of Seamus Coleman’s superlative form. The Ireland international’s third goal in four games was, like his strike at Swansea City seven days earlier, decidedly special. First came the pace, then the skill to beat James Ward-Prowse, and finally a thunderous shot, drilled beyond Davis from an acute angle.
In between the two goals, however, Everton lost their way a little.
“There were many phases where we were superior to Everton,” Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino said.
Ross Barkley spurned a glorious chance to double the Merseysiders’ lead, a juggling Adam Lallana almost conjured an equaliser and the marginalised Ramirez did, striking a shot with such swerve that Martinez insisted goalkeeper Joel Robles, making his full debut for the club, should not be blamed.
Yet Everton responded, ending 2013 in suitable style. An encouraging year leaves them in a promising position. They have lost only six league games in the past 12 months and reach the mid-way point of the campaign on course for their highest Premier League points tally. The message from the smilingly ambitious Martinez is that it could have been better still.
“I think we can improve,” he said. “Thirty-seven points is an outstanding return half-way through. We have had two defeats and the draws have been more unfair draws than lucky ones.”
Converting draws into victories was an issue in the three games before Lukaku’s arrival, which all finished level. Since he signed, the Merseysiders have prevailed 10 times in 16 attempts.
It is no coincidence. Chelsea’s loss has been Everton’s gain, and he caused Southampton pain.