Stoke City 0 - 3 Everton
Roberto Martinez's tenure at Goodison has not been without its ups and downs but it's hard to imagine a more dejected feeling than the one that engulfed players, fans and manager alike at the end of our previous visit to Stoke City. The manager cut a harrowed figure as he trouped away from the dugout at the Britannia Stadium following a 2-0 defeat that was as wretched as any he has overseen at Everton before or since.
It is to his credit that – the debacle in Kiev aside – Martinez was able to dig deep with his charges following that game and initiate something of a revival that saw the Blues win five of next 10 games and improve their Premier League standing to an 11th-place finish.
Fast forward 11 months and the Catalan is once again effecting something of a turnaround in his team's fortunes and it's somewhat fitting that it was the return to Stoke that saw his team put on what was, perhaps, their most complete and comprehensive display of the season so far. Atonement for the two prior meetings with Mark Hughes's side and another step back towards the right area of the Premier League table.
That the final score wasn't a more emphatic illustration of just how superior Everton were in this match in almost every department was largely down to goalkeeper Jack Butland who recovered from the concession of an 11th-minute penalty to make three crucial saves in the second half as the Toffees threatened to run up a rugby score in wet and blustery conditions in the Potteries. In truth, six-, seven, or eight-nil would not have flattered the visitors.
If the actual result was reminiscent of the one at Southampton back in August, the two performances were similarly comprehensive but this was a game that was – Everton's penchant for self-sabotage notwithstanding – effectively over by the halfway stage. Aaron Lennon was still a hopeful soul in Spurs-imposed exile when the Blues ran riot at the St Mary's – and there have been times since when fans have questioned why Martinez ended up buying him if he wasn't going to use him – but the winger has been handed a chance to win back his place in the side lately and is grabbing it with both hands.
If not the star of the shows at Carlisle and against Newcastle, then at least deserving of equal billing, Lennon was arguably the standout performer in today's rout and he was run close by Bryan Oviedo, a player who, less than six months from the end of a contract, is in the process of trying to prove both his long-term fitness and his own worth to an Everton side that has certainly been upgraded since he joined the club four years ago. 'the Costa Rican put in what was perhaps his most accomplished display in a Blue jersey as Everton stubbornly refused to allow Stoke any opportunity to repeat the table-turning feat they managed on Merseyside in the reverse fixture six weeks ago.
And under-pinning it all was the humming dynamo at the centre of most of it, Ross Barkley. Scrutinised and pressurised last season, the 22-year-old has just got on with his steady development this term and is emerging as the genuine leader of this Everton side, if not in voice then certainly in deed and influence with the ball at his feet.
It was his brilliant heel flick to meet the run of Oviedo that paved the way for the opening goal via the penalty spot after Butland had committed himself to a challenge with Tom Cleverley that ended with the midfielder tumbling to the turf and referee Andre Marriner pointing to the spot. Romelu Lukaku stroked the resulting penalty straight down the middle to set the Blues on their way after 11 minutes and this time it was a lead they were determined to not only defend but also increase.
If Martinez's midfield were a little guilty of over-elaboration or questionable use of the ball at times over the ensuing quarter of an hour, a pleasingly consistent defensive shape and dogged defending by Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori ensured that nothing came of it from a Stoke point of view.
And the second goal when it arrived after 27 minutes allowed them to strengthen their grip on the match. Gareth Barry won a corner off Ibrahim Affelay and the pin-point delivery was met by the willing run and leap of Seamus Coleman who guided an impressive header into the far corner. It was his first goal of the season and he marked it with a celebration dedicated to his newborn daughter.
Everton were pressing with noticeable vigour at times and it paid rich dividends for Lennon who was alive to a poor inside pass by a Stoke defender, one which he nipped in to intercept before racing away and sliding the ball past Butland with aplomb to make it 3-0 a few minutes before the break.
The anticipated response from Stoke, who had only tested Joel Robles once and meekly so just before the interval, after half time was short-lived and impressively contained by Everton who remained steadfast in their refusal to allow the Potters to play through them or get behind them. That restricted Hughes's side to a succession of crosses that, more often than not, found one or other of the impregnable duo of Funes Mori and Jagielka.
With Barkley ready to spring attacks on the counter, Everton remained a constant threat as Stoke committed numbers forward looking for a way back into the game, and three minutes after the break Barkley bounced off his man with a strong shoulder and spun away upfield before lashing a shot into the side-netting.
And just before the hour mark, it was his accurate cross that found Lukaku for what looked to be a certain fourth until Butland got enough of his gloves on it his header to turn the ball onto the crossbar. Two minutes after that, Marc Muniesa had blocked a goalbound shot from the striker after more impressive work by Lennon along the byline and when he tried to stab the loose ball home, the 'keeper was there again to foil him.
Lukaku then turned provider for James McCarthy with a tidy lay-off that the Irishman drilled narrowly past the far post as Everton pressed for another goal that would remove all possible doubt about the destination of the points.
That spell had seen Lukaku briefly come alive in a game where his role had largely been supportive rather than central. He admitted after the match that he was only operating at 80% following the back injury he sustained against Newcastle in midweek but, as is always the case with players of his calibre, even at below strength he was always capable of making a telling contribution.
It wasn't a surprise, though, that it was he who was afforded the opportunity of a rest with the score at 3-0 and Arouna Kone came on to replace him with 15 minutes to go. The Ivorian had only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes before he had a great chance to make it four when he was released into a one-on-one confrontation with Butland but the 'keeper pulled off another laudable save with an out-stretched leg.
In between, the determination by the back line to preserve the clean sheet remained evident as Funes Mori put in an excellent lunging block to divert Imbula's shot over the bar and Robles was able to make a last-minute adjustment to parry away Glen Johnson's swerving drive from distance.
The Spanish 'keeper was relatively untroubled but the calmness he brings to the defence is unmistakable and his distribution is a lot more consistent than Tim Howard, particularly with his weaker foot. Thanks to his efforts and those of the defence around him he racked up another clean sheet to add to those he earned this time a year ago, the last time he deputised for the injured American.
The travelling fans' calls for the late introduction of Kevin Mirallas were answered by Martinez with five minutes to go and the Belgian very nearly rounded things off nicely in stoppage time but the combination of a heavy cutback by Kone and Mirallas's inability to adjust his feet quickly enough saw him knock the ball harmlessly into the goalkeeper's arms from about three yards out.
Martinez's ability to craft a talented team hasn't really been questioned; with the exception of a couple of positions that still remain uncomfortably shallow, he has acquired players well and wisely in his two and a half years at the club. It's his acumen when it comes to putting out a balanced team that can be as miserly at the back as it can be electric going forward that has come under serious examination as lead after lead was squandered recently and Everton tumbled out of one cup and out of the reckoning for a Champions League place.
A combination of pressure from poor results, the timing of injury to Howard and John Stones, and the need to field a more balanced outfit where there is sufficient tracking back on the flanks and tighter, more concentrated defending, has led to three highly impressive results and as many clean sheets since the heartbreak of'that ill-fated Capital One Cup semi-final second leg.
More so than the more measured displays against Tottenham and twice against City (in the semi-final first-leg and the League) -- after which defensive lapses against Chelsea, Swansea and City (in the second leg) sowed real doubts about Martinez's ability to ever coach Everton to become a winning team – the last three games point, perhaps, to a corner having been turned.
Evertonians know all too well, however, about such corners turning into roundabouts where the Blues end up back where they started, so it's going to take a longer stretch of positive results before many can really begin to believe again that the promise of a bright future under Roberto can become a reality. One step at a time, but performances like today certainly point the way to what can be achieved and how this team can marry defensive solidity and attacking enterprise.