When I wrote of Everton’s need to show bouncebackability against Aston Villa, I little knew that two doses of one of sport’s greatest cures would be needed. But needed they were and, with a little redemption stirred into the mix, all was well in the end.
The first half against Aston Villa had made for painful viewing for Bluenoses. Without a recognised focal point for the attacks, too often passes went lateral or towards a man in an offside position (caused, in part, by the delays in getting the ball forward). Worse, Villa had got the turnover ball they craved and broke to gain a lead that their attacking did not warrant, but that their defending did. Ross Barkley had lost possession in his own half to set Villa on their way and was withdrawn at the break, still looking a yard or two off the pace on his comeback from injury.
On the face of it, little had changed as the second half began with more Everton possession, more home side territorial advantage and more nagging sense that Villa were more likely to fashion real chances counterattacking unpredictably than Everton would attacking entirely predictably. But Steven Pienaar was beginning to link with Leighton Baines and Leon Osman and when Stephen Naismith, a 70th minute substitute for a hardworking, but creatively unimpressive John Stones, gave the attack a point man, things started to look up.
Three minutes was all it took for Naismith to make the kind of natural centre-forward’s run that Mirallas had not seen in 70 and he was through on to Pienaar’s beautifully crafted flick. A perfect finish and Everton were level, with the momentum now running one way. Ten more minutes, and a tiring defender did what a tiring defender does and gave away a soft free kick to Kevin Mirallas (who was playing for it). At just the right distance to get the ball up and down with pace, the Belgian executed immaculately and the three points were secured.
So The Blues bounced back not just from Tuesday night’s bitter disappointment, but also from going a goal down to a team organised and motivated to defend against possession. The victory also provided a measure of redemption for two of the Anfield villains: Steven Pienaar looked fit enough to play as an impact substitute and delivered the change of pace in the final third that was so lacking in the first half; and Roberto Martinez got both his selection and tactics exactly right, besting his opposite number who inexplicably replaced his centre-half and captain just when Ron Vlaar’s leadership and resilience were most required.
Not all of Everton’s midwinter problems have been solved in twenty minutes of football, but every man showed that they were prepared to stand up when the going got tough. And that included the manager, whose golden touch looked compromised during three poor halves of football, but who can point to three points from two games. Onwards and upwards.