Everton’s Champions League aspirations suffered a huge blow on Wednesday night as they lost 3-2 to an impressive Crystal Palace.
The Toffees passed up on the chance to reclaim fourth place on a disappointing evening at Goodison Park, finding themselves behind to a Jason Puncheon strike at half time.
Matters worsened after the break when Scott Dann headed in from a corner with barely a minute of the second half played. Substitute Steven Naismith responded from close range on the hour mark but Palace restored their two goal advantage through a smart Cameron Jerome finish.
There was time for Kevin Mirallas to pull one back after rounding Julian Speroni but even six minutes of injury time were not enough for the Toffees to find an equaliser.
Below we take a look at 5 Talking Points from a confidence-sapping night at Goodison Park.
Sometimes you pick the wrong ones
Martinez has lapped up the plaudits following Everton’s seven game winning streak for his squad rotation policy and his adeptness in making substitutions that directly affect the outcome of games.
Therefore it’s only right that the Catalan should take a significant portion of blame for Wednesday’s defeat to Palace. Much had been said about Everton’s need to focus only on the game in front of them (or what over-excited Kopites would call ‘X-amount of cup finals’), the most important game being the next one. So it came as some surprise to see the team-sheets revealed an hour before kick-off with James McCarthy’s name on the bench.
Out came the industry of the ever-present midfielder, Leon Osman and Steven Naismith and in came the dynamic exuberance of the attacking trio Aiden McGeady, Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley, while Gerard Deulofeu kept his place in the side.
While Martinez’s intentions were clear and many Evertonians were fairly happy to see such a bold, attacking line-up, the Blues struggled the moment Palace came forward. Barkley’s natural instinct will take him high up the pitch, while wingers Deulofeu and McGeady didn’t seem so keen to track back.
Usually gaps between full-back and midfielder are plugged by the ever-presence of McCarthy who anticipates opposition’s forward play and can either pull off a timely, robust interception or at least stop their forward momentum to give Everton time to re-shape.
In the first half in particular Everton were exposed at one end while lacking the urgency and creativity at the other, despite the plethora of attacking quality. When McCarthy was introduced at 2-0, balance was restored and Everton looked a more dangerous (and stable) proposition.
Let’s just admit something…Palace were very good
Heaping praise on your victorious opponents is not something that comes easy. Fans, players and no doubt managers alike will first dissect their own team’s failings before recognising the success of the other.
Many thought Martinez was handing out morsels of faint praise when he described Palace as ‘the best defensive set-up in the league’ but on yesterday’s evidence (and that of the last few months) he’s absolutely right.
Tony Pulis’ men have conceded just five in their last eight games, keeping four clean sheets. The two goals conceded against Everton was the first time since their home game against Manchester United on 22nd February that they have conceded more than one goal in a game.
But while they’re a compact and repellent unit at one end of the pitch, they’re quickly becoming a ruthless machine in front of it, especially on their travels. They put three past Cardiff on the road earlier this month and were unlucky not to beat Chelsea at Selhurst Park by a greater margin. The likes of Jason Puncheon, Yannick Bolasie and Cameron Jerome are powerful and explosive in attack while even the mythological Marouane Chamakh looks a different proposition to the one that anonymously haunted the Emirates.
They defended impeccably and looked a real threat going forward, the very traits that Everton’s seven match streak was based upon, especially away from home.
Stones’ man was Scott free, but let’s not play the blame game
Stones has shown incredible maturity and ability in the absence of Phil Jagielka and there is no doubt in the minds of Evertonians that the youngster will go on to become a fantastic centre half (hopefully in the blue of Everton).
The 19 year-old enjoyed another stand-out game but one moment sadly defined it for the wrong reasons. Everton returned to the field of play for the second half, with Martinez’s brief on how to overturn the 1-0 deficit fresh in player’s ears. But barely a minute into play having resumed, Scott Dann escaped his marker and powered a header past Tim Howard to double the Eagles’ lead.
The Liverpool-born journeyman left Stones for dead and I’m sure the defender is more than man enough, despite his tender years, to admit that he should have done better to deny Dann the opportunity.
But other than that error there was not a single moment where the former Barnsley man put a foot wrong. He was his composed self and was courageous enough to bring the ball deep into enemy territory before passing the ball and venturing further forward. He won two of his four tackles attempted and was successful in all five of his attempted clearances.
Stones continues to show great form, despite the slip up which proved costly. But this is not the time to start pointing the finger and I’m sure his experienced team mates will point out the lesson that needs to be learned for next time.
McGeady’s withdrawal harsh, but Mirallas justified himself in the end
Aiden McGeady seems to get better and better with every game he plays. It’s a shame the season has only four games to go because having regained match fitness, the Irish winger is showing great potential.
The YouTube clips of his silky step-overs and teasing trickery in the red of Spartak Moscow are finally being replicated in Blue and it’s so exciting to watch. McGeady attempted 11 take-ons on Wednesday night and was successful in five of those. Despite the winger losing the ball in failed attempts, it did not stop him trying again and he went on to put 9 crosses into the box.
While McGeady was one of Everton’s only bright sparks in a poor first half, Mirallas’ wick looked to be burning low. He was knocked off the ball all too easily and either couldn’t protect the ball when receiving it in the supporting striker position, or wasn’t quick enough to lay it off.
But that changed in the second half when Naismith was introduced for Deulofeu. The Scot played just behind Lukaku with Mirallas pushing right and the Belgian was much more effective. He supplied the cross from which Baines headed back across goal for Naismith to tap home and later breached the Palace stronghold before delicately clipping the ball past Speroni.
McGeady will certainly feel hard done by to come off when he might have out-performed Mirallas overall, but the Belgian provided two moments which gave the Blues a foothold. It was just unfortunate there wasn’t a third.
Advantage Arsenal, but it’s not over yet
There is no doubt that the Gunners are firmly back in the driving seat for the last Champions League spot after Everton’s defeat to Palace. Even with Everton occupying 4th place with a two point advantage, Arsenal’s end of season run-in made them favourites among pundits and bookies.
But with four games each left to play, there is only one point between the sides. Let’s not forget that back in February when Everton came away from Stamford Bridge with nothing but a pat on the head for a valiant effort to show, they were eight points off 4th placed Liverpool and an incredible 14 points adrift of then 2nd placed Arsenal.
Everton had dropped to 7th on goal difference and the thought of Europa League football never mind Champions League qualification was a fantasist’s crazy dream.
That deficit was overturned thanks to an incredible sequence of seven straight wins, so what’s one little point?
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