Watford 1 - 1 Everton
Itâ€™s safe to say that few Evertonians, even weighing their most pessimistic pre-season fears, could have imagined that come mid-April, Everton FC would sitting in 14th place in the Premier League. That is 14th in the most wide-open Premier League in years with the most talented group of players Goodison Park has witnessed in even longer.
And yet Blues fans have been whisked back to the darker days of Walter Smith-induced mid-table mediocrity by a run of form that has seen the Toffees beat just one team outside of the bottom three since the end of September. Couched in those terms itâ€™s a stunning indictment of the way Roberto Martinezâ€™s third season in charge has unfolded and the mentality that exists in his squad.
Yet again Everton not only let a precious lead away from home slip, they did so within a minute of scoring themselves in first-half stoppage time through poor defending at a set-piece. Whatâ€™s worse is that theyâ€™d had a dress rehearsal for the routine that Watford employed just a couple of minutes earlier and been let off when Jose Holebas out-jumped Seamus Coleman but put a free header wide of goal.
After two awful displays and the pressure starting to mount, Martinez needed a big performance and a win today against a team on a four-match losing streak; what he got instead was a middling display lacking in guile and a result, at least, that does very little to advance the argument either way surrounding his tenure at the moment.
The manager and his players will have been glad to have put on a better showing than they did at Old Trafford last week â€” not, in itself, all that hard, really â€” avoided defeat and could probably count themselves as unfortunate not to have won the game. That is faint praise, however, because the performance was still desperately short on quality, particularly in the final third where once the Blues were reliably prolific but now are struggling badly to create enough clear-cut chances to win games. Despite the draw, there was plenty for those who unfurled a prominent â€œMartinez Outâ€ banner in the away before the game to be concerned about with regard to the managerâ€™s oversight of this team.
Romelu Lukaku was simultaneously too isolated (again) and starved of regular service on the one hand and frustratingly ineffective with the ball at his feet on the other. His first touch, control and hold-up play, so much improved this season, was generally off today but in the areas where it counts he was consistently let down by abysmal deliveries from the flanks.
Nevertheless, the Belgian came close to registering an assist when he back-heeled into the path of Aaron Lennon with 20 minutes to go and Heurelho Gomes palmed the wingerâ€™s shot behind for a corner, was foiled well by Craig Cathcart as he tried to flick home a low cross by Gerard Deulofeu, but then spurned the chance to potentially win it four minutes from the end when he fired a rebound off the crossbar.
Had that snapshot gone in, it would have rewarded the Blues for a late push that owed much to the energy shown by substitute Kevin Mirallas but, by the same token, not many neutrals would have begrudged the Hornets all three points had Ben Watsonâ€™s deflected shot won it at the death. That it didnâ€™t was down to a second brilliant save from Joel Robles whom Martinez owes a debt for preventing what would have been a hugely damaging fourth straight defeat.
Gareth Barry returned to the starting XI following suspension in place of Tom Cleverley as the only change to the side that lost to Manchester United last Sunday and, in terms of general organisation in front of the back four, it was a positive development. He didnâ€™t help himself with some very poor distribution at times but the security he offers gives Coleman and Leighton Baines greater confidence to get forward down the flanks.
Not that that was a great advantage for the most part. Coleman was the more purposeful and energetic of the two bombing forward but, despite getting into some good positions, he barely put in a decent cross all game. His partner down the right, Deulofeu, was better, at least in the first half, and appeared to be Evertonâ€™s biggest threat, particularly as Lennon was largely anonymous for the first 45 minutes.
It was Deulofeuâ€™s curling effort after 18 minutes that forced the first save from Gomes and his determination to make something happen with runs at the fullbacks that threatened to open things up. Unfortunately, the Spaniardâ€™s end product was sorely lacking and he increasingly lost his way and with the home side having really only threatened Robles once with a rasping shot by Jurado that Robles palmed behind superbly at full stretch, it wasnâ€™t surprising when the first period looked to be heading for a goalless conclusion when the refereeâ€™s assistant signalled one minute of added time.
A gift by Watfordâ€™s defence at one end, however, and poor set-piece organisation by Everton at the other saw the two sides trade goals in the space of 70-odd seconds.
First, James McCarthy robbed Miguel Britos as he dallied just outside his box and drilled a low shot past the stranded Gomes to give the Blues the lead in the first minute of stoppage time. Then, after Etienne Capoueâ€™s shot had whistled just wide after taking the merest of deflections off a defender, Holebas easily rose above Coleman at the back post to head in almost on the goal line.
For those looking for more spirit and fight from Everton, the better news was that the Blues were more effective going forward after half time than they had been in the first half, even if the execution was still largely disappointing. Lennon became a more integral part of the attack and it was his shot after an excellent interception by Coleman and good work by Deulofeu that deflected wide seven minutes after the interval.
Three minutes later, Lennon skipped inside and drove another skidding low effort that Gomes got a hand to and almost presented to the lurking Lukaku before he batted it away to safety. Five minutes after that, Deulofeu raced into the clear down the right channel and was bearing threateningly down on goal when he made a mess of the final ball looking for Lennon in the centre. It summed up the Spanish wingerâ€™s rustiness and inability to translate exuberance into end product.
Mirallasâ€™s introduction added a bit more composure in Deulofeuâ€™s stead but while his crossing wasnâ€™t that much better, it was his direct free kick that almost served up the winner for his compatriot Lukaku. After heâ€™d been chopped down Watson just outside the box, the former Belgian struck the low free kick through the wall that fell to Lukaku after Gomes had stopped it one-handed but the resulting shot was too high and bounced off the woodwork.
In the final reckoning, this was hardly an inspiring warm-up for a possible reunion in the FA Cup Final. For long periods, it was an untidy and uninspiring tussle between two teams drifting in mid-table. Definitely not the position Evertonians thought their team would be in at the â€œbusiness endâ€ of the season.