An hour or so before Everton kicked off at 12.45pm (I’m sure travelling fans appreciated that little ankle tap from BT Sports) Ronnie O’Sullivan was in trouble at The Crucible. 11-9 down, having thrown a frame away with a schoolboy lapse in concentration, he knew that it was time to show what he was made of. The Rocket got it to all square, then powered over the line with two century breaks to show that he is not merely an excellent player – he is a great player. Greatness is defined in meeting challenges, not in mere execution of skills, and few possess it
In the windy, sunlit crucible of St Mary’s, Everton’s players – excellent though they may be – did not live up to the test of greatness (as, gallingly, our brothers from across the Park appear to have done). Right from the off, the Blues had, if not quite a lethargy about them, a definite lack of zip, perhaps lacking David Moyes’ inspiration of last week. Sure this XI were shorn of some first choices, but the team selected were good enough to get in and around a decent Saints outfit, good enough to impose themselves in the middle of the pitch, good enough to compete. They didn’t.
In defence, two own goals will provide comic amusement for the bantz, but they can happen to any team at any time. What was more worrying was the ease with which Southampton – without Jay Rodriguez – got at Everton’s last line of defence. You felt that Rickie Lambert (who must have enjoyed this 90 minutes as much as any in his career) and Adam Lallana could have gone up a gear for another goal had they needed to do so. Antolin Alcaraz and Seamus Coleman may have their names on the scoresheet, but it was a collective failure. Gareth Barry looked washed up at the end of a long season, lucky to stay on the field partly as a result of Michael Oliver’s eccentric refereeing and partly as a result of Roberto Martinez’s forbearance with the substitutes’ board. James McCarthy played his most ineffective game in a Blues shirt, rendering the season long (ex Anfield) DM screen invisible for much of the match. In a portent of life in 2015 and beyond, the team missed Sylvain Distin’s calm influence at the back.
Going forward, things were hardly much better. “It doesn’t matter who Deulofeu plays against, he’ll have the beating of him” – I said to my son this morning. Well, he did not have the beating of Nathaniel Clyne, who enjoyed the sight of the mercurial one switching wings to try his luck against £30M man, Luke Shaw. Romelu Lukaku came up a poor second in comparison to The Litherland Lionel – Mr Lambert – whose velcro touch and judgment of a pass are well beyond the Belgian’s compass, for all his promise and power. Ross Barkley, on parade in front of Roy Hodgson, must have been bitterly disappointed to have been hooked at half-time, but, when he looks at the tape, he can’t argue.
So The Rocket revived at Sheffield, but Everton’s season has been brought down to earth at Southampton. The rarified atmosphere of the Champions League looks as distant as the moon right now. instead, an orbit around obscure Eastern European outposts in the Europa League seems more likely come next season.