After spending so much of the last six weeks away from home, this home match against a Swansea City side who had won just one of their last six was, on paper at least, another good opportunity to put another win on the board and make up more ground in the top half the table.
Unfortunately, the reality was far more underwhelming as Everton came up against another side prepared to put men behind the ball and dare their hosts to break them down. Not for the first time in recent years, the Blues could not summon enough imagination or supply the final ball to unlock the Swans' defence despite dominating the encounter for long stretches.
It was an encounter with the South Wales side that bore little resemblance to the open, five-goal feast at Goodison back in March. That day, it was Swansea who had the greater share of possession but Everton who emerged worthy winners thanks to a Leighton Baines penalty and goals from Romelu Lukakua and Ross Barkley.
There would be no such attacking success this time, though, as Baines struggled uncharacteristically from dead-ball situations, Barkley betrayed some lingering rustiness in the crucial final third of the field, and Lukaku came on with 23 minutes to go to join a performance sorely lacking in guile and invention; consequently, chances were few and his prospects of finding a winner were small. Far from opening up some space in which the home side could operate, Jonjo Shelvey's dismissal in the second half for a second bookable offence merely galvanised further the visitors' defensive resolve.
It was frustrating because Everton were so dominant in the first half and that should have been a platform on which to build a second-half display capable of seeing Swansea off. Granted, they created just as few few clear-cut openings before the break as they did afterwards, but it just seemed like it would be a matter of time before they carved something out to break the deadlock.
Samuel Eto'o had popped up in the Swansea box inside the first minute and engineered the game's first shot on target from Gareth Barry's touch forward but his shot lacked power. And Aiden McGeady tested Lukasz Fabianski with a low shot from just outside the box that the 'keeper spilled behind for the first of a number dreadful set-piece deliveries from Baines who came into the game seeking to tie Graeme Le Saux's Premier League record for assists. His one well-struck effort was a free kick after Eto'o's jinking run was curtailed by a clumsy challenge from Ki Sung-Yeung but the England fullback's effort dropped a yard wide of the post.
At the other end, the in-form Wilfried Bony sprung the offside trap and looked odds-on to score but he fired just wide with just Tim Howard to beat, while Antolin Alcaraz's clear handball on Shelvey's shot following McGeady's glaring giveaway in the centre of the park went unpunished by the typically abysmal Kevin Friend.
It would be Alcaraz's last significant intervention, not only of the match but for many to come it would seem. The Paraguayan defender, who has looked so assured over his last three games in place of John Stones, injured his shoulder in an aerial duel with Bony and was withdrawn in obvious discomfort, to be replaced by Muhamed Besic. The Bosnian slotted into midfield, with Barry dropping back alongside Phil Jagielka and it was testament to Swansea's general lack of adventure that the change was barely noticeable.
Gary Monk had favoured the high-pressing and counter attack approach and it nearly paid off six minutes after half time when Bony rolled Jagielka all-too easily and fed Shelvey but, thankfully, the ex-Kopite belted a first-time effort wide before Gylfi Sigurdsson, ballooned a volley into the Park End a minute later.
Everton had their moments on the break themselves, not least when Steven Naismith, for whom nothing else really went right all afternoon, cut back inside and fed McGeady but the Irish international couldn't bend his left-foot shot inside the far post, missing the target by a few feet instead.
Then, after Shelvey had walked for blocking off James McCarthy in full flight and Eto'o had driven the resulting free kick into the wall, the Cameroonian was tripped out wide and Jagielka had a half-chance in front of goal when a high defensive clearance dropped back into the six-yard box but the defender's header bounced onto the roof of the net when a surer contact would almost have certainly resulted in an Everton goal.
By the time Lukaku had replaced McGeady and Steven Pienaar had come on for Naismith, the Blues had all the ingredients on the field that you would want (with the obvious exception of the injured Kevin Mirallas) in order to break down an entrenched defence but the balance never felt right all afternoon. Eto'o had excelled in a withdrawn role at Burnley last weekend but was deployed as an out-and-out striker in Lukaku's absence, while Barkley filled the "number 10" position. After the Belgian was introduced, Barkley appeared to move left and Eto'o played more towards the right, with the result being very little penetration.
Indeed, Fabianski wasn't tested in the second period; the one shot that might have done, a powerful drive from Baines in injury time, struck Lukaku on its way to goal and bounced well away from the target. Pienaar's attempted volley a minute earlier also looked to catch the Belgian striker and deflect wide, while the final attack of the match ended with Eto'o's cross just eluding the boot of Lukaku, who was whistled offside anyway.
For Swansea it was mission accomplished but for Everton it represented another afternoon of frustration just when it seemed as though they were beginning to hit their stride. A 70% share of possession in the first 45 minutes really should have yielded more than three efforts on target, something that Martinez will hopefully take on board as the season progresses. His side's inability to break down stubborn defences was an issue last season and appears to be again this season. Mirallas' return will help but it's going to take greater invention elsewhere in the side to propel the Blues towards the top four.
Everton started with Samuel Eto'o leading the attack, Aiden McGeady supporting Barkley and Naismith against Swansea City at Goodison Park this afternoon. Romelu Lukaku suffered a recurrence of his toe problem in the win over Burnley and starts this game on the Everton subs bench: no Distin.
The game began with a lively Everton attack down the right that ended with a half-chance for Eto'o. But Bony was soon running at the Everton goal, firing over. Bony beat the offside trap, with Baines playing him onside and Howard needing to make a desperate save with his foot, as both teams were playing open football through the middle. Barkley looked a little tentative but won the first corner.
McGeady was well involved and had a good poke with a low shot that Fabianski had to get down and save. Eto'o was granted a little space and he advanced, drawing the foul from Ki. Baines took the free-kick which curled away from the near post. McGeady was played in again by Barkley but took a fraction too long to make his cross, and when the ball finally fell to Barry, he shot hurriedly at Fabianski.
Swansea had read the counter-attack script well and were quick to press Everton, who were doing just about enough to snuff out the dangers, and in turn were moving the ball through midfield a lot faster and with a lot more intent, minimizing the sideways and backwards passing that has become such a frustrating aspect of Everton's possession game.
McGeady got another great cross in but Eto'o couldn't get a clean attack on the ball as Everton pressed for the opening goal in a good competitive game, as Shelvey took out Barkley, then kicked the ball away and picked up a very silly yellow card. Maybe he was annoyed with an earlier decision that could have seen Alcaraz called for a penalty on a fairly clear handball that deflected his low shot into Howard's hands,
Barry and Williams got into a shouting match over a penalty claim as Alcaraz needed treatment for a shoulder injury and Tony Hibbert prepared to come on for him but Martinez had a rethink and decided Besic would be the better option. Baines put in a good free-kick that Jagielka tried to glance home but got too much of it. McCarthy then went down heavily under a challenge from Bony, who was booked for his robustness.
The challenges were getting a little spicy, Barry the next to be booked for a late scythe on Sigurdsson. Besic assisted McGeady on the right wing, Everton winning a couple of corners that Barkley took, the second of which should have been converted but neither Eto'o nor Naismith in the goal area could wrap their foot around it. Baines was then cut down but strangely referee Friend decided no free-kick, to the annoyance of the crowd as Swansea clung on, just about keeping Everton at bay.
Baines returned to corner duty, but the result was another defensive headed clearance. Eto'o tried to dribble his way through more directly. Everton had been very dominant, playing possibly their best joined-up football so far this season, with much more zest and forward possession (71%) but nothing to show for it at the break.
Less than 3 minutes into the second half and Martinez had Lukaku warming up as the second started at a quieter pace until Bony fouled Barkley, not called by Kevin Friend. Shelvey found good space as Bony turned Jagielka but thankfully raked his shot wide as the Blues defence looked rather vulnerable.
Williams fouled Coleman for another excellent set-piece opportunity outside the Swansea area, but Baines got under it too much. But Everton were struggling to click with the same tempo of the first half and it was Monk who made the first change, protecting the overly aggressive Bony, with Gomis. coming on.
Despite some great football, Everton had failed in the first hour to really threaten the Swansea goal. And the turnovers were becoming more worrying as the game progressed, Swansea pushing forward with increasing confidence as Martinez continued to sit on his hands. Naismith got a chance to advance but McGeady's curled shot was off target. Friend got the bird for failing to play the advantage for Besic, fouled by Sigurdsson. Finally, Martinez replaced Naismith and McGeady with Pienaar and Lukaku after the pair had stood waiting on the sideline for 5 minutes.
But the strange pattern of the second half continued, with Swansea still dictating the pace and direction of the play. Everton got the ball but failed time and again to do anything meaningful with it as the crowd became increasingly frustrated. Finally, something to shout about as Shelvey cynically blocked McCarthy, getting a well deserved second yellow card for the ex-Liverpool man, much to the delight of the Goodison crowd. But Eto'o wasted the set-piece, straight into the wall. Baines curled in a great free-kick from wide right but the ball just would not fall for a Blue strike.
Everton with the man advantage finally started to turn the screw, but the surprisingly resilient Swansea defence continued to thwart the Blues, Gomis getting chopped by Besic. Montero was replaced by Dyer going into the final 10 mins as McCarthy fouled Taylor. Ki Sung Yung fired in a fearsome kick that could have gone anywhere.
Pienaar and Lukaku struggled to really get into the game, as the Blues continued to bang their heads against the brick wall that was the resolute Swansea defence, despite the visitors being a man down. McCarthy made a good run down the left, winning a corner but Baines fired it in far too low, a very poor corner when much better quality was needed. Baines and Pienaar looked to combine old-style but Baines could not pull back the final ball to a man in Blue.
Baines whipped in an excellent ball that seemed destined for Lukaku to convert but a defender intervened just ahead of him as Everton piled on the pressure and the clock ticked away. But Swansea pushed Barkley way out to the corner flag as 4 minutes of added time was called.
The ball almost fell for Pienaar but he screwed the shot wide under pressure. Baines fired one in low and Lukaku blocked it away rather than deflecting it in. Besic saw his customary yellow card for a feet-up tackle on Dyer as the final seconds played out. The last move of the game saw Eto'o lash in a brilliant cross, on a plate for Lukaku, but the big man could not reach the ball as it fizzed enticingly across the goalmouth... and he was offside anyway!
A very disappointing scoreless draw as Swansea held on with all-too-effective determination and Everton kept a precious clean sheet but failed to score in the Premier League for the first time this season.
Everton may have made an inauspicious start to 2014/15 but with a quarter of the campaign gone, they're satisfactorily positioned four points off the top four with improving form, key players returning from injury and some of their rivals from last season's top seven teams struggling to find form.
As the top flight's only unbeaten side and already holding a six-point lead over reigning Champions, Manchester City, Chelsea have emerged as the overwhelming favourites for the title but it's the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham whom the Blues will have in their sights as they look to put together a string of victories that would propel them into the reckoning for the top four.
Expected but nonetheless important wins over Aston Villa and Burnley have lifted Roberto Martinez's team into the top half of the table for the first time since the opening day and they have the chance to make it three League wins on the bounce as Swansea City come to town.
Everton's long-standing historical domination of the Swans may have been broken in the Capital One Cup in September when the Welsh club beat the Toffees for the first time in history, but the League record remains intact – indeed, our 18-match unbeaten run over Swansea is a top-flight record.
History may be on Martinez's side as he takes on his old club but he will be able to take nothing for granted against Gary Monk's men who will start the day two points and three places better off, having made an impressive start to the season. They've only one won of their last six in the League, though, and have been showing signs of vulnerability in recent weeks which will hopefully bode well for Everton whose form is going has been improving.
With no cup distractions in midweek, Martinez can remain faithful to the side that started the 3-1 win at Turf Moor, although the apparent recurrence of Romelu Lukaku's toe problem may give the him pause when it comes to naming his starting XI. The Belgian has continued to train, his manager expained in his pre-match press conference that he doesn't foresee the complaint being a big issue and it may be a case of him starting and then coming off in the second half as he did last week.
If that is the case, the remaining question marks might be over which two start out of Samuel Eto'o, Ross Barkley, Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman. Eto'o had a superb outing against Burnley playing in the withdrawn role behind the front two, scoring two goals as Barkley started on the bench, while Osman played 82 minutes before making way for Pienaar. Perhaps with Lille's visit to L4 on Thursday in mind, Martinez might rotate the South African in and experiment with Barkley in the three up front with Lukaku and Eto'o and Naismith sitting out.
It's a nice selection dilemma to have and you feel that if the Blues can carry through their performances from the last two games, they should have enough to win. That's even allowing for the goalscoring form of Wilfried Bony – his two goals against Leicester last weekend took his tally to four in three games – who will need to be watched closely by the expected defensive pairing of Antolin Alcaraz and Phil Jagielka, while the defensive midfield axis of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy will need to shackle Gylfi Sigurdsson who has a penchant for assists and a knack for scoring goals from midfield.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|Montero (Dyer 79')|
|Subs not used|
- Shots on target
- Shots off target
|5||West Ham United||17|
|11||West Bromwich Albion||13|