An injury-time goal from John Terry condemned Everton to a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea, all but ending their Champions League hopes.
Everton were in control for much of the meeting at Stamford Bridge and carved out a couple of goal-scoring opportunities in the first half.
Everton were full-value and more for the point that seemed forthcoming, but Chelsea improved in the second half and Terry did enough to distract Tim Howard from a free-kick which ended up in the back of the net.
With Manchester United winning later on Saturday, the result leaves Everton in 7th place, eight points behind Liverpool who occupy the last Champions League spot.
And the series of events which saw the Blues return from the capital with nothing but patronising compliments was all too familiar.
Lacina Traore was chosen to lead the line at Stamford Bridge, only to have to delay his Premier League bow after an occurrence of the hamstring injury he brought with him from AS Monaco. Steven Naismith, whose record of four goals in five games prior to Saturday’s clash and the man who netted against Chelsea in each of the sides’ last two meetings, was the man to replace him.
Everton’s starting line-up was identical to the one which started so well against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month and it was not only the personnel which mirrored that meeting on this occasion.
The Toffees were quick to gain control of proceedings in West London; happy to keep possession in their own half and content to build momentum slowly from defence. The tactics were the same employed when Martinez has taken his team to the so-called ‘big clubs’. It caused panic at White Hart Lane two weeks ago, and it brought adulation from the Emirates back in December.
Similarly here it frustrated Chelsea, who are not used to seeing too many teams come to Stamford Bridge and dictate the game at their own pace. Leon Osman overcame some early struggles to provide Everton with their first effort on target, a powerful half-volley which required a strong hand from Petr Cech.
Kevin Mirallas drew a number of fouls from left-back Cesar Azpilicueta, while Oscar’s frustrations at having no influence in between Everton’s defence and midfield were acted out in a poor tackle on Naismith. Martinez’s mantra of passing the opposition to death, coupled with the urgency of James McCarthy who worked tirelessly to regain possession, made Chelsea look second rate.
Mirallas should have done better to at least get his effort on target following some intricate play inside Cheslea’s penalty area, while Phil Jagielka glanced a header wide. For all Everton’s elegance in possession, their was something lethal missing from their attack. Think you’ve heard this one before? I bet you know how it ends.
In the second half Everton were content for the match to play out how it had in the first 45 minutes. But Chelsea had woken up and Jose Mourinho’s decision to introduce Ramires for the inept Oscar proved decisive.
Everton’s passing saw them overwhelm Chelsea at times yet their indecision in and around the opposition penalty area simply highlighted their limited striking options. This was perfectly summed up after Ross Barkley was introduced for Osman after 63 minutes: Steven Pienaar stood motionless in Chelsea’s penalty area with not one white shirt offering a solution to his blocked route to goal.
Ramires’ drive propelled Chelsea forward and the hosts miraculously started to look more like a team that sat top of the Premier League eager to extend their lead. But still chances were limited for either side.
Howard repelled a powerful volley and made himself big to block Branislav Ivanovich’s follow up while Ramires’ shot from outside the box spoke volumes of an Everton defence working overtime to keep Chelsea at bay.
And it seemed to have done enough, even when Ramires took a soft tumble to win a free-kick in the five minutes of injury time. The contact by Jagielka’s right knee was minimal, however Martinez did himself no favours in his post-match comments that Chelsea employed ‘every trick in the book’ to get the win.
Every fan will have their view on how easily certain players fell helplessly to the ground throughout the game, but the defensive lapse which cost Everton a much deserved point was clear for all to see.
Lampard- so often the bane of the Everton fan- delivered into the box with three minutes of injury time played and the ball found its way into the net. The decision to award the goal to Terry seems the wrong one with every replay, as it seems only his presence was the factor in the ball bouncing awkwardly in front of Howard before it went over the line.
The same moment of carelessness cost Everton at least a point at White Hart Lane two weeks ago, and Terry being allowed to ghost between Sylvain Distin and Leighton Baines cost them again in almost identical circumstances on Saturday.
It was a performance which promised much but delivered nothing. Martinez was bold enough to make the same changes that he made against Spurs in an attempt to win the game, even with the game poised at 0-0. It’s the kind of bravery we’re coming to expect from the Catalan and I’d be surprised to hear of a single Evertonian who does not prefer it to the conservative substitutions of David Moyes’ tenure.
What is clear is a shortage of fire-power and the need to convert excellent football into goals, especially at the grounds of top teams. The rest, despite a few moans and groans at the current philosophy, is working and will only improve with time.