Everton 3 - 4 Stoke City
Following the elation of our last-gasp Boxing Day win at Newcastle United we dared to be confident going into what was always going to be a tricky encounter against Mark Hughes' Stoke City.
We were in good spirits pre-kick off in the pub as we received the team news and weren't surprised to see Roberto had made four changes, with Baines, Mirallas, Lennon and Cleverley all rested to be replaced by Galloway, Kone, Deulofeu and McCarthy. Evertonians' favourite referee Mark Clattenburg officiated.
As is often the case, Everton didn't get going until a goal behind when Shaqiri finished a lovely flowing move from Stoke City to put the visitors deservedly ahead on 16 minutes. This awoke Everton and we soon levelled when Lukaku was given time to slot home inside the penalty area from a James McCarthy pass. This was to be the last meaningful action of the game for James McCarthy as he was substituted only four minutes later, replaced by Saturday's goal scorer Tom Cleverley. You had to question, especially with Gibson, Osman and Besic all available, why McCarthy was rushed back for a game he wasn't ready for. It seems we don't learn as he made last seasons injury come back in the exact same festive fixture, only to not feature again for months. A waste of a substitution also.
Anyhow Everton were at least back competing in the game though a lot seemed to hinge on a Mark Clattenburg decision roughly five minutes before the interval when he booked Gerard Deulofeu for a tumble as he got around his defender and headed towards goal. Now I was at the other end of the pitch so I've no idea if it was a dive or not (though I'd wager it may have been given it's not exactly his first offence of this ilk this season), though over the next few minutes Clattenburg gave a series of decisions in Stoke City's favour, irking our players and supporters alike. We seemed to lose our discipline again at this point and were carved open far too easily and Shaqiri lobbed Howard masterfully to put Stoke City ahead at the interval.
Things had to get better for Everton and get better they did. It was a brave effort by the Blues to fight back at Stoke City and we were very good value for our equaliser when a majestic ball from Tom Cleverley was controlled well on his chest by the exquisite Romelu Lukaku, who then finished well past Butland to level the scores. Goal number 18 of the season in all competitions for Lukaku and without him in the team you wonder just how badly we would be faring. We may find out next season.
This was Tom Cleverley's last action in the game also as the substitute became the substituted when Naismith replaced he. We were baffled by this though it has emerged he had to be replaced due to injury. Regardless, with Goodison rocking and no longer humbled by the noisy Stoke City support Everton pressed on for the winner and we dared to dream when a fantastic combination of Lukaku, and then Barkley, and then Deulofeu resulted in our third goal and getting our noses in front in the game for the first and only time.
With the alarming number of goals we have conceded this season you knew it wouldn't be straightforward for Everton, though even so, the cruel finish to the game was difficult to stomach. Roberto Martinez has to take responsibility for staying so gung-ho with the team. Lukaku, Kone, Naismith, Deulofeu and Barkley all remained on the pitch with poor Gareth Barry having to cover a mountain of work in the middle. We'd done the tough work getting ahead in the game and now we had to see it out. Barry desperately needed the assistance of Besic in there but this was neglected and it wasn't much of a shock when Stoke City levelled in typically calamitous circumstances. Funes Mori only half cleared the ball and another ball came back in for which Howard flapped. The ball fell to Joselu who still had a bit to do, though did it well, thundering his half volley into the net and levelling the scores. Nobody shocked. We've seen this all before too many times now this season.
There was still time for the real kicker of course. From the opposite end of the pitch it looked as though Stones had tackled Arnautovic and we thought at first that Clattenburg had given the goal kick, though after much deliberation Clattenburg pointed to the penalty spot with Goodison aghast in disbelief. It would be easier to take if we'd have been awarded at least one penalty all season as we're simply not getting any of them 50/50 calls inside the penalty area. Though Howard guessed right, Arnautovic still scored and Stoke won the game at the death...Seamus Coleman skying our late, late opportunity high into the Gwladys Street end.
Poor defending cost us yet again and this will go down as yet another game we should have gotten more from this season and let slip away. Phil Jagielka's return will make a difference to the defence yes, but with or without or skipper, Roberto has to get his basic managerial decisions correct, and leaving Barry so hopelessly exposed after getting ourselves ahead was abjectly poor in my view.
We've reached a pivotal time in the season now with big league and cup games coming up over January. Even with all Lukaku's brilliance, it will take a major slice of luck to turn this season around if we continue to get the basic so badly wrong.
All the best for 2016 Blues!
Howard: Needs to be moved on. The problem we have now is that a large section of the fans have lost faith in Tim Howard and when that's the case as a goalkeeper, it's very difficult to get it back. When he catches it's now met with ironic cheers. Whenever a goal goes in he gets slaughtered. I couldn't believe the abuse he was getting from the Gwladys Street for the Shaqiri's wonder goal on half time. It was impossible to save but he got a ton of abuse. Earlier in the half he came and punched, clearing the ball out of the box and then caught the return cross and got stick also. He's made mistakes, no doubt about that, and the time may be right to replace Howard, but getting on his back in games really isn't helping in the meantime. 6
Galloway: He didn't do much wrong but the attacking force Baines brings with him in comparison is clear for all to see. 6
Stones: Never thought I'd say that between he and Funes Mori, John Stones is the weak link at the back. He had a shocker today. Both he and Funes Mori improve immeasurably alongside Jagielka. Our skipper's return can't come soon enough for me. 5
Funes Mori: Despite conceding four I'd say he didn't do too badly today. 6
Coleman: OK defensively though seems to have lost that cutting edge in attack. Some of his crossing was woeful and he did sky a late chance which you've seen him put away previously, even on his left foot. 6
Barry: Hopelessly exposed at 3-2 up and he must be exasperated with his manager for not giving him some help in there. As always this season, one of our top performers today. 7
Kone: For someone so confident in his skill and ability to run at players it's baffling how terrified he is to shoot. Since his hat-trick against Sunderland he's been incredibly shot shy. Whether we replace him with Mirallas or buy a replacement, we need a better player than Kone in the team. 6
Deulofeu: One of his more effective games for a little while. I'm disappointed however if it was a dive in the first half as he really needs to rid that attitude from his game. He caused them problems in the second half and got on the scoresheet. We'll really need him at his best next month if we're going to make any in-roads in the league or the League Cup. 7
McCarthy: Rushed back too soon. Do we ever learn? 6
Barkley: Did pretty well but should have taken more initiative and dropped back to help Barry as we "protected" our lead. I know that's not really his game but it would have been better than having nobody there, though Roberto should have sorted this out. Nice assist for our third goal. 6
Lukaku: An awesome display and like so many games this season, he deserved so much better. He must be getting sick of this by now. 9
Cleverley (for McCarthy): Did pretty well and played a wonderful pass for Lukaku's goal. Shame that was his last action. Both he and McCarthy may now be sidelined for a while, perhaps Besic will finally get another opportunity. 6
Naismith (for Cleverley): Got involved and almost volleyed a goal instantly but it deflected wide. Nearly set one up for Stoke City also but Howard got out well to prevent the goal. I think he'll be gone in January. 6