For a while it looked like the perfect start to 2014-15 was on the cards. Everton had scored – quite spectacularly at that – conceded almost immediately, but then righted the ship again and reasserted control of proceedings in the style which became so familiar under Roberto Martinez last season.
For those who feared that the Blues' lethargic and wholly unconvincing pre-season somehow foretold of the manager struggling through a case of second-season syndrome, the good news after 45 minutes at King Power Stadium against newly-promoted Leicester City was that nothing really seemed to have changed; Everton appeared to have rediscovered their mojo now that the real business of the Premier League is back underway.
The bad news after the final whistle was that, in some key respects, some things haven't changed. On the afternoon's evidence, Martinez's side can slip from the sublime to the pedestrian from one half to the next, remain suspect when defending set-pieces and still lack the killer instinct to drive home an advantage that is required of teams that hope to finish in the top four.
It's a shame because Everton, as clearly the superior team when they had their act together, should have won this match comfortably and taken three points back to Merseyside as a platform on which to face Arsenal and Chelsea between now and the end of the month. They came into the second half with a goal advantage but eased off too quickly and for too long and were then forced to go in search of a decisive third goal in the final 10 minutes when fatigue had clearly set in.
Martinez made a couple of belated substitutions in an effort to carve out another goal but his opposite number, Nigel Pearson, had played a couple of decent cards himself by that stage, changes that gave the Blues much more to think about in their own third of the field and which ultimately secured the Foxes a point when substitute Chris Wood swept the ball past a stranded Tim Howard in the 86th minute.
The scoreline and timing echo that of Everton's opening match of the 2013-14 campaign when they were denied a victory by Ricky van Wolswinkel's equaliser for Norwich City, but the circumstances and character of this game were different. This was a Blues side minus – crucially, perhaps – one of the goalscorers that day in the form of Seamus Coleman but with all three of its September 2013 transfer deadline-day signings on the field, including record signing Romelu Lukaku, who not only started but played the entire 90 minutes.
The Belgian was a doubt based on his lack of match sharpness but Martinez played him anyway while keeping Kevin Mirallas on the bench until 10 minutes from time and while the former Belgian has come in for criticism for his performance, he didn't actually play as badly as some have suggested. Granted, he was more "group stage Lukaku" (in reference to his experience at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil) than "round of 16 Lukaku" but his movement, touch and hold-up play were better than we saw last season and his presence alone up front can be key to Steven Naismith's game, allowing the Scot to drop off into the No.10 role when needed.
Both strikers were involved in some of Everton's first forays foward during what was a confident and controlled start, Naismith almost finding the Belgian with a cut-back from the left-hand side but his pass was cut-out.
Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines, meanwhile, were re-establishing their almost telepathic relationship down the left flank and their first interchange provided an early shooting opportunity for the South African as he cut in across the edge of the penalty area but, as he did so often last season, he lacked the confidence to pull the trigger and the chance was closed down.
He was more effective as provider and it was his jinking run to the byline that forced the corner from which Everton indirectly scored. Aiden McGeady's set-piece was cleared to Baines who raked a 35-yard shot towards the Leicester area where it deflected into the path of Sylvain Distin. He was denied well by Kasper Schmeichel but the goalkeeper's parry only fell to McGeady who curled as perfectly-placed a shot as you will see in off the far post.
Unfortunately, the Blues' own weaknesses at corners at the other end yielded an almost immediate equaliser for Leicester (who had already threatened to expose some hesitation in the visitors' back line a few minutes earlier when Phil Jagielka and Tim Howard got in a muddle and Leonardo Ulloa almost nipped in to score). A routine ball was not dealt with, Distin could only hack the loose ball into the body of Ulloa and when the rebound sat up nicely in front of him, he lashed it past Howard to make it 1-1.
Everton were undaunted, though, and after re-establishing control over the game, they almost went back in front through a second goal from McGeady but though Baines picked him out neatly with a ball inside the from the left, Wes Brown made a crucial block to deny the Irishman's goalbound effort.
Martinez's men did find a second goal on the stroke of half time, though. Lukaku's floated pass to the wing found Baines, he collected a return ball via Pienaar's delightful backheel and when the South African continued his run and helped on the England fullback's centre, Naismith was on hand to smash a first-time shot in off the underside of the bar.
It was no more than Everton deserved and it set them up perfectly for the second period. Unfortunately – and it remains an enduring mystery as to why they occasionally do this – they stopped doing everything that had worked so well in the first 45 minutes and sat back, inviting their hosts back into the contest.
It was a strategy that worked as long as Leicester lacked the pace and imagination to truly trouble what was a back four that never looked truly at ease with John Stones at right back in place of Coleman. But when Pearson introduced the pace of Jeffrey Schlupp to compliment the probing of Riyad Mahrez and the directness of David Nugent, the dynamics of the contest changed.
Schlupp himself should have scored within minutes of his introduction when he raced in space behind Stones to collect a throughball but blazed high and wide with just Howard in front him. It was a let-off for the Blues and the Foxes were equally fortunate when Liam Moore appeared to handle the ball as Lukaku tried to knock it past him on the way to a one-on-one confrontation with Schmeichel but he escaped with only a yellow card.
With the Everton still ahead witb 10 minutes left, Martinez withdrew Pienaar, who had faded from the game as the team generally had stopped coming forward with any fluidity, in favour of Mirallas and then removed McGeady in favour of Coleman. McGeady had had another typically mercurial afternoon and was perhaps fortunate to last as long as he did given his profligacy in possession in the second half.
Unfortunately, Coleman had only been on the pitch a couple of minutes when what now looked to be an back three was caught out badly and Chris Wood, another substitute, pounced to grab Leicester a point. The goal owed a huge debt to fortune – Mahrez's initial shot took a heavy deflection off and though Jagielka reacted quickly his challenge dropped into the ocean of space vacated by Stones as he tried to provide cover and Wood had the simple enough task of steering a shot past Howard.
Everton pressed in the final stages in response but could not force another way through and had to be content with an annoying point when three were in the offing for so long in this match. It is only the first match of a long season, though, one that will no doubt produce plenty of thrills and spills, highs and more lows than the post-match news that Ross Barkley could be out until the New Year. And there were some genuinely impressive moments from a team that was not at full strength and that bodes well for the campaign ahead.
Taking into account all the positives from the Blues' performance, though, you're still struck, firstly, by the fact that the players seemed to tire early in the second half; and, secondly, the nagging knowledge that Champions League-quality teams find ways to win these kinds of games and not drop vital points from winning positions. That lack of a truly clinical mentality could prevent Everton from achieving that top-four dream unless Martinez can find a way to instill it in his players. He has time and a barnstorming display against Arsenal next weekend would quickly transform the outlook.
Everton kicked off Roberto Martinez's second season iat Leicester with Ross Barkley ruled out but Romelu Lukaku named to lead the line, with Mirallas, Besic, Atsu, Coleman and Osman on the bench. Everton fan David Nugent starting for Leicester.
Pienaar was bright as Everton retained possession from the kick-off and with a free-kick that came to nothing. The good possession continued until the forward third where passes didn't hold up so well but it was all Everton, although with no penetration in the first 5 mins.
Leicester saw more of the ball in the next 5 mins, Everton's passing less accurate than might be desired, Naismith bursting into the Leicester area, but his cutback not reaching Lukaku. Everton were starting to build more effectively, using the flanks well, ad Pienaar seemed to have a chance for a shot that he spurned.
Leicester got a free-kick down by the corner flag and won a corner as Howard tipped the ball behind, Knockaert firing well wide from the corner. Some better play from Everton won their first corner, Delap challenged Pienaar. The ball pinged around, out to Baines, who fired in back to Distin off Schmiechel, and McGeady composed himself, then clipped a fantastic shot over everyone and in off the far post. less than a foot below the angle, for a brilliant opening goal.
But less than a minute later, Leicester were level, scoring from a corner, Ulloa lashing home as Distin failed to make any ground, his clearance hitting a player in the 6-yard box.
Everton were having to work hard after the goal struggled to create much until after the half-hour, when a couple of corners resulted from better play, McGeady's shot blocked away by Morgan in the crowded Leicester area.
Better build-up play from Everton saw McGeady have another pop from a more central position but this one flew over the bar. Naismith was the next to fire one in but it was just a few inches wide. Some lovely movement, starting with Lukaku coming back to collect the ball on the half-way line, and getting the ball out to Pienaar who then found Baines, a nice cross to the penalty spot was swept home off the underside of the bar by Steven Naismith.
Leicester came out the stronger after the break but it was fairly competitive stuff as Everton looked to hold on to and, if possible, build on their lead. They were starting to stroke the ball around with confidence, with Leicester refusing to lie down.
McCarthy went don heavily on a challenge and seemed to have seriously damaged his knee ligaments. McCarthy slowly hobbled off after a lengthy spell of treatment, but hobbled back on as Leicester sub Schlupp beat Jones hands down but smacked his shoot wildly high, miles over the Everton bar with Howard to beat.
Lukaku's first touch was still poor at times, as Everton lacked the fluidity that they threatened to impose on the home side at times in the first half. Lukaku looked to take the ball past Moore, who handled it, but it was too far form goal for a red card.
McCarthy had to foul Mahrez, whose free-kick was deflected wide, the corner well overhit. Going the other way, Lukaku looked pretty rusty at times, as he made poor use of good balls played in to him, the Blues looking tired while Martinez delayed any changes into the last 15 mins, as McGeady made a horrible giveaway to a player 3 yards in front of him and Barry had to cynically block Mahrez.
Pienaar replaced by Mirallas. Then Jagileka went down after being caught by a high boot and Coleman then replaced McGeady. But some really soft defending gifted an equalizer to Leicester after Stones and Jagielka could not clear the ball which fell nicely to Wood, Everton playing a massive price for increasing laxity as they failed to carry through their first-half superiority.
Everton got a corner but Mirallas put his attempt in the side netting. Then Mirallas tried to play in Naismith as Everton finally woke up, pressing much better. More spirited attacking that had been absent for much of the half say Baines cross well but Lukaku seemed unable to lift his body, the ball hitting his head an bouncing off high over the bar.
A poor result because Everton squandered two points here against a limited Leicester City side, and very disappointing loss of two vital points.
At the height of Everton's ultimately frustrated Champions League chase last season every match felt like a cup final, awaited with stomach-knotting anticipation and expectation as the Blues tussled with Arsenal down the home straight of the 2013-14 Premier League campaign, only to falter, crucially, on one regretful evening in April against Crystal Palace.
Though they're still largely being dismissed by the majority of the media, Roberto Martinez's team start the 2014-15 season very much in the mix for the fight for a place in the top four from the outset and that means there is, potentially, so much riding on every fixture.
Of course, as Arsene Wenger's Gunners proved last season, it's possible to shrug off an unthinkably bad curtain-raiser to a campaign, power through the inevitable calls from supporters that it's the end of the world and spend a fair few weeks as the pace-setters for the League title. Bad starts can be overcome but with the disappointment of last term still so fresh in the mind, a poor points return from Everton's three August fixtures will inevitably get the inquests started and dampen optimism for what promises to be a long season.
Though Arsenal and Chelsea loom before the end of the month, it's the opening-day clash at King Power Stadium – or Filbert Way, as some of the more traditional Foxes fans prefer to call it – that is the first focus as Everton meet Leicester City for the first time in a decade. The last time Everton played on this ground, Duncan Ferguson grabbed some retribution for a second yellow card with his infamous choke on Stefan Freund, Wayne Rooney scored his penultimate goal in a Blue shirt, and future Goodison striker Marcus Bent scored an injury time equaliser in a 1-1 draw between two teams that would finish side-by-side in the final League table, Everton 17th and Leicester relegated in 18th. This time, of course, Ferguson will be in the dugout with different responsibilities as Martinez's side go in search of three points that would get the ball rolling in perfect fashion.
Ordinarily, the start of the season is when the manager would expect to field something close to his best starting XI but an injury concern over Seamus Coleman and uncertainty over the readiness of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas following their belated return to training after the World Cup. That has kept supporters and opposition manager, Kevin Pearson, guessing as to which team will line up for Everton on Saturday.
Caution over Coleman, with that double-header against two of last season's top four at Goodison to follow, is understandable and it would not be surprising if the Irishman was held back from action for another week. The Belgian duo, on the other hand, are expected to play some part after getting 45 minutes' of action in a behind-closed-doors friendly earlier in the week – whether as starters or off the bench is unknown. Newcomer Christian Atsu is another likely substitute following his arrival on a season-long loan from Chelsea.
Should Coleman not make it, veteran Tony Hibbert, who hasn't seen much action over the past couple of seasons and whose defensive propensities make him feel somewhat anachronistic in Roberto's shwashbuckling new world, will get the nod on the opposite side of the back four and in front of Tim Howard. The possibility exists that the manager will go for a back three that would enable him to deploy all three of Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin and John Stones or use Stones at right back but Hibbert is the most likely option. In that case, the smart money would be on a central defensive pairing of Jagielka and Distin, with Gareth Barry and James McCarthy taking up their familiar positions in defensive midfield.
The forward areas really depend on the availability of Lukaku and Mirallas. If they both start, Ross Barkley and Steven Pienaar would likely round out the side; if not, Steven Naismith and Leon Osman would be in contention to play in what would, on paper, be a less explosive line-up.
Whichever team Martinez selects, a win – an away win at that – would be priceless to set the tone before those back-to-back home games, particularly as Everton will be going into this opener short of full strength. Grinding out victories by wringing the most out of the squad is going to be key to the Blues' season and there's no better time to start doing that than from the first match.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|Knockaert (64' Schlupp)|
|Drinkwater (39' Hammond)|
|Ulloa (78' Wood)|
|Subs not used|
- Shots on target
- Shots off target
|9||West Bromwich Albion||1|
|16||West Ham United||0|