Romelu Lukaku match-winning return put an end to the darkest month thus far in Everton’s season. It was almost a month to the day since Lukaku was forced out of the derby with an ankle injury. He made his return the same way he made his debut for Everton – off of the bench against West Ham. Amusingly enough, both matches ended the same way: with a Lukaku winner separating the two teams.
West Ham came to Goodison Park today to play spoiler. Sam Allardyce is a relegation dogfight expert. In the first half, he set his team up to absorb pressure from deep and hoped that by frustrating us he could create an opening for a goal that would at least get his team a valuable point on the road.
His plan worked well in the first half. We had almost all of the possession but our attack stagnated when we got into the final third. Whenever we pressed forward, West Ham dropped into a shell, with both of their wingers (Jarvis and Downing) playing almost like auxiliary fullbacks and tracking Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman as they made their forays forward. West Ham’s defense was solid (according to Naismith), and apart from two very early chances and a brilliant bit of play from Gerard Deulofeu, our possession merited us next to nothing.
The second half was slightly more open. Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan began to link up dangerously and West Ham for once appeared interested in the part of the field where they could score. They were probably hoping to pick up a goal early in the half so that they could sit back and try to collect their league-leading 14th clean sheet.
However, for once we had talent to burn on the bench. Martinez first added Lukaku on sixty minutes for Leon Osman. Naismith stayed up front behind Lukaku, continued to chase down every ball and looked like he was giving the big Belgian more room to make things happen on the ball. The change did not pay dividends immediately, but we began to see flashes of the attacking brilliance that Lukaku can bring when he is on his game. Martinez next added Aiden McGeady for Gerard Deulofeu, looking to exploit West Ham’s lack of pace, which was becoming more and more apparent as their defense was stretched during their attacks.
The match then began to take on a familiar pattern from yesteryear. It’s something we haven’t seen much of under Martinez, but Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar began linking up as we became accustomed to them doing under David Moyes. Martinez has gone away from that strategy because we became somewhat over-reliant on our attack down the left over the past few years. However, it was exactly what we needed today and Baines and Pienaar seem to have added the ability to bring other teammates into their brilliant interplay.
It was this tried and true partnership that created the goal to break the deadlock. Pienaar and McGeady pressed West Ham’s defenders toward the by-line before Pienaar cut the ball back to Leighton Baines. Bainesy drove forward before delivering a clever ball to Lukaku, who had found just enough space in West Ham’s penalty area to blast home the decisive goal.
The goal all but ended West Ham’s challenge (except for a terrifying free kick a la Chelsea that came to nothing). We calmly stroked the ball around and ran out the clock. Let’s hope that this result puts the difficult period we have faced in February to bed. Our standards have not slipped but we have lacked the cutting edge against the top sides with only Naismith leading the line. This month may have dealt a fatal blow to our Champions League ambitions but we’re still in the cup and our league position is salvageable if we put together a run and receive some help from our closest competitors.
Man of the Match: Leighton Baines
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