Stoke City 0 - 3 Everton
Stoke away is never a fixture to look forward to for an Evertonian; I believe our last success there was 2008. Still, we go in hope if not in expectation... yet if you take our last two games throwing up 3-0 wins with what looked like a departure from the tippy-tappy play across the back five – until panic sets in or we give up a goal for a more pragmatic "take no chances" and "work your socks off" approach, then today may not be so daunting.
After being searched, we were allowed entry and the weather looked like it might play a part as wind seemed to swirl around with rain akin to a monsoon season. You could see pools forming here and there. Stoke kicked off and we had the wind and played away from the faithful; at times it was hard to see and not just because everyone stands. We were in our all-Blue outfits and were looking to make a fast start; we got our first corner in the first 5 mins but nothing came of it then Stoke went down the other end and forced their first corner and theirs was worse than ours.
We settled quickly and were playing at a good tempo with every player looking to be involved, either going forward or covering back. We were harrying and tackling anything that moved which seemed to be unsettling Stoke and this paid off around the 10-minute mark when we put together a super move. Barkley had a ball come to him and in one movement backheeled it into the path of Oviedo who had Cleverly racing past him and Oviedo released a peach of a superbly weighted ball for Cleverly to race forward and look to go around the keeper but the said keeper brought him down leaving the ref to make a very easy penalty decision.
Lukaku took the spot-kick and hammered it down the middle; faithful go wild; players didn't overly celebrate so off we went again. A blue smoke bomb was cleared from the pitch. After the searches, you would wonder where it could have been hidden, the mind boggles...
We continued in our defence and attack mode as a team with all the players playing a part in covering each other and giving the player on the ball two or three options. Given the conditions, it was good to watch. On or near the half-hour we got a reward when Cleverly again ran on goal but was beaten by a Stoke sliding defender but won a corner which he took himself. He arced it in and from my seat I saw a figure in Blue come across the area and head home. It turned out to be Coleman and both players and fans celebrated accordingly.
Ah, the dreaded two-goal lead came to mind... but the way we were playing filled me with hope and I have to say we were making Stoke look quite ordinary which was a few notches up from the game at our place. Half-time was beckoning as the clock ticked just past 40 mins and I don't think I was the only one almost praying we don't let them get one back when we got down the left with the outstanding Oviedo but Stoke smothered that move.
One of their players passed the ball back across his own back four only for the quicksilver Lennon to intercept the ball and off like a robber's dog toward goal and keeper. With keeper approaching he gave a master class in one-on-one finishing leaving the keeper to do no more than turn and fish the ball out of the net. Big celebrations and then the chanting and singing erupted.
We had a few injuries in that half with Barry and McCarthy needing treatment on the field but thankfully both recovered. I dread to think how we would fare if both of them were missing so 5 mins were added as Stoke broke down their left and did get a shot in but Joel gathered comfortably and we played out the rest of the time in relative comfort.
Half-time: 0-3. At the start of play, that would have seemed an unlikely scoreline but everyone was very happy with it.
Second half and no subs so the injured must be mended which was a relief. The first 10 minutes or so we seemed under the cosh but, with some good teamwork all over the pitch, we slowly regained our superiority. We saw an Oviedo inspired raid down the left taken over by Barkley who with power and finesse got himself in on goal but unfortunately his finish was not as good as his approach play and shot into side netting.
Some minutes later Barkley again showed his progress with a slight of foot that allowed him to cross right on to Lukaku's noddle but the big man powered it straight at the keeper who got his hands up quickly enough to divert the ball onto the bar and out and cleared.
Next, Lennon, who was having some game, went past two defenders as if they were not there and from wide pulled the ball back for Lukaku to hit except he didn't. Gilt edged chance that. Still, every time we came forward now we looked like scoring yet contrived not to. The game continued in this vein of they attacked us, we defended as a team with Funes Mori and Oviedo prominent in one attack by Stoke that saw Joel do well with a push out. We attacked and Barkley and Lukaku team up to cut through the Stoke defence like a knife through butter with the latter seeing McCarthy steaming toward the box fed him in and the Irishman hit a power drive that missed by inches – should have scored really.
As I watched the game tick by, I got to thinking about our new way of playing and Leicester City came to mind. They work like hell for each other, take few chances at the back, and attack swiftly with just the right number of bodies getting forward at pace and, if the move breaks down, they regroup at alarming speed. To me, that is the right sort of "joined-up footy".
Fifteen minutes to go and the manager swops Lukaku for Kone, which seemed a sensible move even though his first touch was a one-on-one with the keeper and he matched our first choice striker by hitting the keeper's leg. Perhaps both of them could get Lennon to give them some tips. Time was ticking down as more chances came and went and we repelled their attacks with minimum fuss. The faithful were happy with this and broke into song urging our manager to 'Give us a dance'. He ignored that...
We had time for Jags to hit a slow back pass that he just about got away with and a Stoke sub Ireland hit high over the bar. Four minutes to go and Mirallas replaces Barkley. Then Osman for McCarthy with the Stoke fans disappearing like a 'Dynamo' Illusion. Osman's first touch is a good one and sets up a move, Mirallas cuts in from the right looking dangerous but falls over, Oviedo hits one high and wide while at the other end Joel gathers a headed attempt with some aplomb and to finish off Kone does well going past two men to the bye-line but his pull-back is just behind Mirallas. Shame that. Full time and all wet windswept and happy.
MotM: Choose whoever you want; no-one could argue with you but I was delighted with the performance of Oviedo. I just hope he can have a run injury free.
Overall a decent day out with a result that ensures both fans and players have a spring in their step for the WBA game. From the last three games we have scored nine goals, none against, without Howard or Stones. Can anything be read into that? I think not as I prefer to think it's the change in style that is suiting the players we have and it would be nice if we could stick with it for a while and see where it takes us as we know where our previous style was taking us.
I don't think our present manager is likely to be jettisoned any time soon after being allowed to spend Â£15.5M on Niasse. Be far better if he is really learning and keeps this run going. Another win next Sat and a run without too many injuries and who knows where we can be celebrating. See you Saturday for another traditional 3:00pm KO!!
UP THE BLUES