Had Everton been able to carve out a first win over Manchester City in two-and-a-half years, they would, perhaps for only 24 hours or so, be sitting on the top of the Premier League with three matches gone having made their best start to a season in almost 10 years.
Following the emphatic nature of the 3-0 win Southampton last weekend and with the possibility that the club might unveil a new signing or two Goodison Park this afternoon, optimism was high that Roberto Martinez's side might be able to do just that with the right kind of performance and the rub of the green.
Unfortunately, none of the new players were signed in time and, on the pitch, luck would not be on their side today – not only did the Blues' display fall short of the calibre needed to end their opponent's 100% start to the new campaign, they came up against a City side that displayed all the characteristics of a team on course to reclaim its Premier League crown. It is they who will almost certainly occupy the top flight's summit tomorrow night, a lofty position that still looks some way beyond Everton's reach on this evidence.
It wasn't that Martinez's men played particularly badly overall but the solitary shot on target they mustered spoke volumes of their inability to seriously examine the visitors' rearguard. The pace, cohesion and incisiveness in the final third that proved much for the Saints last Saturday was largely absent despite an unchanged line-up and when the manager belatedly tried to salvage the game with his remaining second-half substitutions, he altered the personnel but neither the shape nor the outcome.
Everton made a habit of frustrating and beating City when Roberto Mancini was in charge but those stirring results were mostly achieved on the back of relentless pressure, tenacity in midfield and sheer will going forward; here the desire appeared to be there but the Blues left simply left City's most dangerous players too much space in which to operate and failed to make enough inroads at the other end.
Despite having not really risen to the occasion, at the halfway stage Everton's plan was still very much intact, however. Indeed, they could count themselves slightly unfortunate not to be ahead after Romelu Lukaku had seen a first-half "goal" ruled out by an incredibly tight offside decision and then grazed the crossbar with a direct free kick after Tom Cleverley had been upended in full flight by Fernandinho on the edge of the "D". Phil Jagielka had also gone close with a header off a corner and Seamus Coleman's left-footed shot at the end of a solo run slid narrowly wide of Joe Hart's post.
By the same token, a half-time lead might have flattered Everton given how important Tim Howard had been in the early going when he twice denied Sergio Aguero with impressive saves with his legs, saw Yaya Toure flash the ball across his goal and then bundled Raheem Sterling's low shot behind.
It was City who emerged from the interval showing evidence of a managerial catalyst, however, and it resulted in their superiority eventually telling within 15 minutes of the restart. A better finish from the game's stand-out performer, David Silva, would have put the Blues behind a lot earlier in the second half – he latched onto Sterling's reverse pass and smacked a shot off the face of Howard's right-hand post – but Aleksander Kolarov provided the opening goal on the hour mark.
Sterling, booed throughout because of his Liverpool connections, was again the provider with a neat pass that found Kolarov's unchecked run on the overlap and with Howard inexplicably diving in the direction of an anticipated cross, the Serbian fired easily inside the American's near post.
It was ironic that such a sloppily-conceded goal had come down City's left because Everton had been compromised late in the first half by an injury to Brendan Galloway that necessitated his withdrawal, with Tyias Browning thrown into an unfamiliar left-back role and charged with the task of dealing with the direct running of Jesus Navas. Curiously, the visitors hadn't tried too often to exploit the youngster's weakness out of his natural position but there was a strong case for Martinez dropping Gareth Barry back to left back and Cleverley alongside James McCarthy to allow for Kevin Mirallas to come on further forward.
Despite Kone's impact inthe previous two games, the Belgian's guile and goalscoring productivity had been many fans' preference to play off Lukaku up front so it was mystifying – and then infuriating – when he didn't start and was then left unused on the bench for the entire 90 minutes. (Mirallas himself was visibly annoyed that, having warmed up on the touchline, he wasn't called upon, even in the late stages.) Instead, it was Steven Naismith who replaced Kone in the 65th minute after Howard had partially redeemed himself with a point-blank save to deny Navas from the angle following a mix-up between John Stones and Browning near the touchline. Perhaps Martinez had both Naismith's rescue act in this fixture last season in mind and his team's threat from set-pieces in this game in mind when he made the change but the Scot offered nothing to change Everton's attacking dimension.
Indeed, the Blues' display as a whole had become disconcertingly poor by this stage, lacking in any real finesse or intensity. An occasional threat running from deep in the first half, Barkley's decision-making had diminished in quality, Lukaku was cutting a familiarly isolated figure up front and with Everton lacking any width apart from the willing running from Coleman – the man of the match from the home perspective – it left them bereft of any real attacking threat from open play.
They were able to unsettle Hart from a couple of corners, however, that the England international struggled to deal with but after Naismith's shot was charged down leading to a second consecutive set-piece, referee Anthony Taylor waved away appeals for a penalty when Toure jumped over Jagielka in the City area. Barry then had a header that looked to be flying wide cleared away from the goal line.
It's not clear what Martinez was seeing because Gerard Deulofeu, who would eventually become the third and final substitute, stood ready to come on for a good five minutes before he finally came on in place of Cleverley. Even as late as the 86th minute, the Spaniard's introduction offered hope of a late flourish but it would be a dreadful five-minute cameo filled with poor touches that betrayed his rustiness and raised more questions as to why he and not Mirallas was thrown on with the Blues chasing a point.
One more moment of typical Manchester City brilliance rendered the change moot two minutes from time, however. Toure's smart flick past a flat-footed Everton defence released Nasri in behind the Blues' back line and he dinked it over Howard who, bafflingly, didn't raise a hand in defence of his effort as it floated past his shoulder.
It was a goal that underscored that the better team won on a day on which Everton were unable to bridge the divide with sufficient tenacity, drive or invention. The result ends the Blues' unbeaten start and further undermines the notion of "Fortress Goodison" which has now witnessed three successve defeats and a disappointing draw since Manchester United were humbled here at the tail end of April.
Martinez has promised that reinforcements are coming but you couldn't help but feel that we need more than one possible marquee acquisition – assuming, of course, that even materlialises given the doubts expressed before kick-off by a report in the Liverpool Echo surrounding the proposed move for Andriy Yarmolenko – and the addition of a back-up defender and striker. At the same time, though, if the manager is going to keep leaving the craft in the form Mirallas and even Leon Osman on the bench in favour of the industrious but one-dimensional central-midfield triumverate of Barry, Cleverley and James McCarthy, it's not going to matter whom we sign unless it is a grafter like Aaron Lennon because they could spend more time on the bench.
It's a curious state of affairs given how attacking and expansive Martinez's outlook was when he first arrived. Today smacked of playing it safe and hoping for something to break in the Blues' favour rather than taking the bull by the horns when it was still 0-0. City were superior but also somewhat fortunate and the margins on the day in front of of the respective goals were slim. Sometimes fortune favours the brave...