Everton 2 - 3 Leicester City
Strung on the couch since Thursday with a rough bout of tonsillitis, I was touch and go as to whether I was going to make the game, though eventually I manned up and got in the car with Gaz and Ste for the game against the surprise league leaders, Leicester City.
Being a little under the weather and on penicillin I was on the lemonades in the pub, with a startled Gary observing "what are you on there?".
We got the team news and it surprised no one that, despite two successive draws (three in total), the team remained unchanged. What was perhaps a bigger surprise was that Steven Naismith, a man so highly revered this week in the local press for his good attitude and popularity, was not even amongst the substitutes, leaving no strikers on the bench, though three central midfielders. Way to keep your important fringe players happy, Roberto!
As we left the pub and routed to the ground the rain was tumbling down and there was noticeably a lot of zip on the turf as we looked down from our seats. In a really lovely tribute, children from Alder Hey hospital where invited to lead the teams out onto the pitch. The rain persisted, Goodison was full against the league leaders and we attacked the Park End for the first half. A plane flew through the gloomy clouds with a banner stating THANK YOU MR KENWRIGHT. Excitement was brimming, so you could count on Everton to let you down.
We began the game brightly and were having the better of things against an industrious and motivated Leicester City who do a great job of defending from the front. Despite creating little, we were the team on top and were looking good in the game, only to throw it away cheaply, when Funes Mori got caught on the wrong side of Okasaki resulting in a coming together, and thus a penalty for which Jonathan Moss really had to give. Riyad Mahrez converted with Tim Howard guessing the right way but the ball just out of his reach and in the corner.
Everton reacted well and levelled in five minutes. We found ourselves in the penalty area and when the ball broke to Ross Barkley he showed remarkable composure to create a little space and get his shot away. Schmeichael repelled it but it came back to Barkley who drove at goal and this time it was cleared off the line by Andy King. It rebounded to Romelu Laukaku who instinctively drove back at goal and into the net to put Everton back level. Relief and delight all round and we went into the break all square and the only boos were reserved for Jonathan Moss who had made some bafflingly inconsistent decisions throughout the half.
There was more great charitable giving by Everton at half time with a Blue Santa presenting gifts to the children of Alder Hey hospital. Unfortunately Everton proved just as charitable on the pitch as they were off it, again gifting the visitors a penalty, this time Tim Howard the culprit. It was deeply frustrating as, much like the first half, up until then we had been the more likely side.
Things got worse when just four minutes after going ahead, Leicester City gave themselves a two goal cushion. I'd momentarily looked towards the substitutes bench in hope when Coleman fluffed his clearance but the groans told me something negative had occurred. You could see the goal coming after that and Okazaki showed good composure to score Leicester City's third. If Kone had that opportunity you somehow figure he'd take too many touches and fail to get his shot away.
The team, from manager down to players and even the frustrated substitutes warming up all looked numb. We became idea-less and lacking in any morale. Despite this Claudio Ranieri still made a change before Roberto Martinez, with Kevin Mirallas and Aaron Lennon finally thrown on to rescue the game on 74 minutes.
We still couldn't get going and it was only a late charge which gave us a lifeline when Kevin Mirallas, after an exceptional assist from Ross Barkley, fired home to give us hope. I hope Roberto took a good look at what Mirallas can do. Few, if any, others in our squad can churn that sort of opportunity into a goal.
It was all little too late however and Leicester City successively battened down the hatches to hold out for the three points to put the visitors an astonishing five points clear at the league summit.
We trudged away disappointed with Roberto Martinez the target of our frustrations and that too of those on the Radio Merseyside football phone in as Gaz drove us back home. It's Roberto's inability to learn and stubbornness with team selections which kills me the most. We've one heck of a squad there and it's not being utilised, instead the same players are being selected week in-week out. We then take too long to make a substitution if we make one at all and the opportunity has often past when we do finally get around to changing it. We just don't improve in defence and teams carve us open far too easily, whilst we never finish teams off when we're on top, though the team must also take responsibility for this of course.
I worry about our season and I worry about our team. We are only two point better off than this time last year, and it's all horribly reminiscent of this time last season when we lost four games in a row, two of which were a mirror of our December fixtures last season of Newcastle United and Stoke City (albeit in reverse order). Our January fixtures are then horrific.
The way teams are beginning to pick up points below us is also alarming (Bournemouth now only four points off us) and with all that's been said above, fourth place is out of the question. I worry this will trigger the departure of out biggest assets and how they are replaced I just don't know.
Over to you Roberto. Erm...Happy Christmas, Blues!
Howard: I'll have to see how bad a mistake he made for the second penalty though he did make one good second half save and seemed helpless with the other two goals. Defending at corners has become absurd however. There was one corner kick in the first half which flashed right through our six yard box and it was a miracle it wasn't buried by a Fox. This isn't just Howard, it's our entire defence. Working on set-pieces would certainly help, but so too would a solid, commanding goalkeeper. There was one at the other end. 5
Baines: Useful getting forward and flipped in some good balls into the box. He's galloping up to fitness pretty well. 6
Funes Mori: Though generally sound, I always feel he's got a mistake in him and so it proved when he conceded the penalty kick. The sooner Phil Jagielka is back the better for me. 5
Stones: Though he always shows some classy play on the ball, he still has a lot to learn and plays immeasurably better alongside Jagielka. 6
Coleman: At fault for their third goal apparently but had a reasonable game otherwise. 6
Barry: Comfortably my man of the match. Perhaps the only leader on the field for us. Lead by example time and time again and will have been exasperated with some of his teammates I suspect. 8
Cleverley: A game of two halves for Tom. Decent first half, but sloppy second despite his best efforts. I was furious with his stupid foul in injury time which stunned all our momentum. Should have been substituted long before that though. 5
Kone: A few bright moments first half and contributed towards the first goal somewhat but isn't doing enough to warrant a place in the team when MIrallas and Naismith are available. As Ste pointed out, if Kone did start more from the bench doesn't this then also provide an opportunity to rest Lukaku from time to time and add another option in attack from the bench? 5
Deulofeu: We must get less predictable to get more out of Deulofeu. Nothing comes down our left so we can't give it to Gerard on the right EVERY time. It's little wonder he gets double-marked and thus tired and frustrated come the hour. Even then I don't see why he was substituted. He was still the most likely to unlock the door for us and a more balanced team might have provided more space for him without over-reliance on him. It's not rocket science, Roberto. 6
Barkley: I like the fight he's showing at the moment. Last season in a game like this he would have curled up into a ball and hidden. This season, when things aren't going for the team he isn't hiding and is getting involved, making a few tackles and taking responsibility. The result - two assists. He was one of few positives in an otherwise dissapointing day. 7
Lukaku: A seventh goal in a row in the league for Lukaku and he must be getting mighty aggrieved with some of his teammates for persistent inability to keep teams out. He's one who will leave for sure if we can't offer him any Champions League football. 7
Mirallas (for Kone): Took his goal very well and I wait in hope that this is enough to get him into the team for our Boxing Day trip to Newcastle Utd but I won't hold my breath. He took a little bit of time to get going but did well once he was settled in the game. Give him a start Roberto. The supporters really demand it now. 7
Lennon (for Deulofeu): Showed some bright work down the flank and got inside them a few times. 7