Everton 2 - 0 Chelsea
Cometh the hour, cometh Everton’s main man.
Perhaps the only way Romelu Lukaku could have timed his first goal against his old club better would have been if he’d added a fourth in the League game at Stamford Bridge in January after Ramiro Funes Mori had made it 3-2 , and even then there wasn’t an FA Cup semi-final riding on the result.
Certainly, the Toffees’ top scorer would have been hard-pressed to score a better one than the opener at Goodison Park this afternoon that lifted the roof off the Grand Old Lady in front of new investor Farhad Moshiri. The 60-year-old billionaire seems to have a permanent knowing look in his eyes, a cat-that-got-the-cream smile, and he must have been purring inside having savoured a raucous FA Cup Sixth Round win from his new team.
Lukaku’s piece of magic, a bustling charge in from the touchline followed by a slaloming move towards goal and an unerring finish inside his compatriot, Thibault Courtois’, far post, was a perfectly-timed intervention that broke open a tie that had been a feisty tussle played out by two evenly-matched outfits for the preceding 78 minutes.
Less a chess match between two clubs playing to keep their respective seasons alive than an almost literal sparring session at times, it was a contest where clear-cut chances were at an acute premium and which just needed someone to stamp their authority and class on it. Cometh the hour, indeed...
It wasn't destined to be but it could have been Diego Costa had Chelsea’s scowling and abrasive marksman been able to take his mind off kicking, pulling and play-acting his way through the game. As it was, the only time he would wriggle free of the attentions of Everton’s attentive back line, he could only roll a shot across the face of Joel Robles’ goal.
The rest of the time he walked a tightrope of his own making after a retaliatory hand across Gareth Barry’s face earned him the first of two yellow cards and it was no surprise when his frustrations got the better of him and he received his marching orders for thrusting his head into the same player’s face once the match was effectively beyond Guus Hiddink’s men. Barry would follow him down the tunnel three minutes later for a silly trip on Cesc Fabregas but his job had been done by then.
Reeling from his team’s latest collapse last weekend, Roberto Martinez needed a big performance from his Everton players and a game-plan to match this afternoon. He got the former and effectively implemented the latter, with his record signing delivering the payoff with two goals in four minutes to settle the tie and send the Blues to what they hope will be the first of two dates at Wembley this season.
Barry, returning to the side after the bout of illness that kept him on the bench for all but a couple of minutes of last Saturday’s game, was his usual disruptive best in front of the back four; James McCarthy was perhaps found wanting with the ball but was a continual pest in hunting it down; while the pairing of Phil Jagielka and Funes Mori, ably assisted by the fullbacks, formed a defiant barrier in central defence.
With Willian’s ample threat nullified, Costa wound up and starved of shooting opportunities, Fabregas’ vision largely contained, and Pedro stifled by the impressive Seamus Coleman, Everton mostly had Chelsea where they wanted them with the kind of defensive shape that was wholly missing in the later stages of last weekend’s defeat to West Ham. Throw in the cynical and gritty streak that has often been missing from Martinez’s team and you had the recipe for a great day on the Blue of Merseyside.
That they restricted a team that was, Champions League aside, on a 15-game unbeaten run since Hiddink took over to a single shot on target in 90 minutes – a driven Willian free-kick pushed over well by Robles – was a clear illustration of just how well Everton went about their business this afternoon. It came at the expense of genuine attacking enterprise on their part for long periods, particularly in the first half where three Tom Cleverley efforts — two comfortably saved, the other well wide — were their only attempts at breaking the deadlock before the interval, but it built the platform from which Lukaku could win the match late on.
With neither side really able to penetrate the other’s penalty area, it looked for long stretches of the first hour as though a set-piece might prove to be the difference and Funes Mori came close with a towering header off Cleverley’s in-sinwger five minutes into the second period but couldn’t keep his effort down.
Everton began to increase the pressure as an equally tight second half progressed, though, with the excellent Aaron Lennon, a player enjoying a wonderful renaissance at Goodison since his man-of-the-match display at Carlisle in the Fourth Round, and Coleman becoming increasing threats down the right and Ross Barkley starting to emerge from his shell. Barkley would blaze one effort well over from the angle with Lukaku better placed in the middle, his only real sight of goal all afternoon.
The best from Lukaku was to come, however. Ploughing the lone furrow up front, the bulk of the Belgian's involvement in the first 75 minutes had come with his back to goal; his first touch, much-maligned at times, was routinely effective as he held off defenders and played the link man to help build Everton attacks. His clearest moment with the ball in front of him came in the 72nd minute as he raced to catch a through-ball from from Barkley but was just foiled by the goalkeeper who had raced off his line.
Courtois was powerless six minutes later, though, as Lukaku exploded off the left flank, stayed on his feet as Azpilicueta grappled at his shoulder, tied Gary Cahill up in knots and picked his spot on the other side of the goal. It was the encapsulation of how devastating Everton’s treasured striker can be; a beautiful and rare combination of raw power, pace, determination, twinkle-toed finesse and clinical finishing.
His second, just four minutes later might not have been quite as spectacular but, in effectively killing the game, it was just as important. Played onside by Azpilicueta on the far side, Lukaku collected Barkley’s knock forward and advanced before burying a right-foot shot under the ‘keeper.
From then on, it was just a case of closing the game out and ensuring that the visitors had no route back into the game. Three substitutions, opportunities for Goodison to applaud the likes of Lennon and Lukaku off the pitch as well as to disrupt the flow, followed before referee Oliver whistled to confirm the Blues’ place in the last four.
If this game and two of the three against Manchester City in January have demonstrated anything it’s that this Everton side, when it has a clear mission and mandate to defend as determinedly and effectively as they can attack smoothly and efficiently against supposedly inferior opposition, they look like the complete team. One capable of occupying a place in the upper echelons in the Premier League to which they have been pretenders all season.
What Martinez has been unable to manage so far, however, is to get his team to pivot from one posture to the other within the same game, particularly in games they have controlled and in which they have established a lead. Had the Blues displayed the same commitment to retaining shape, to diligent pressing and to closing down avenues for the opposition against the likes of West Ham, Bournemouth, Stoke, Chelsea (A), etc as they did this afternoon, it’s likely they would have been able to avoid most or perhaps all of those psychologically damaging results.
Therein lies the key determination as to whether this FA Cup run will be the swallow that doesn’t quite make a summer or whether it can help this Everton side find itself for the wider and more important context of the Premier League. Can the manager demonstrate that he has learned from those past mistakes; that he can instil in his side the versatility and natural ability to pivot their emphasis according to the changing demands with a given game?
Many questions regarding the Blues’ longer-term prospects under Martinez will be asked over the remaining 10 League games but for the next week at least, Evertonian hopes and dreams will be on successive trips to play under the Wembley Arch over the next couple of months and the possibility of an end to an achingly long trophy drought.