Romelu Lukaku came off the bench to score the winning goal on his return from injury in Everton’s 1-0 win over West Ham United.
A stale first half gave way to a more open second 45 minutes at Goodison Park yet chances were still few and far between. Steven Pienaar was unlucky not to find the back of the net just minutes after the re-start, seeing his measured effort strike the post.
Leon Osman made way for Lukaku- who has been absent since suffering an ankle injury in January’s Merseyside derby- and the Belgian took his chance with nine minutes remaining, side-footing home from a Leighton Baines pull-back.
Having lost their last two Premier League games and failing to score in either of them, Goodison Park filled up with nervous fans ahead of West Ham’s arrival. 11 points adrift of fourth placed Liverpool and leap-frogged last weekend by Manchester United, the need for three points weighed heavy on Everton’s shoulders.
Despite Lukaku’s availability, Steven Naismith kept his place as Everton’s lone striker with Osman supporting as a central attacking midfielder. Phil Jagielka’s hamstring injury saw a straight swap at centre-half, with John Stones coming in while the only other change to last weekend’s last-gasp defeat at Chelsea saw Gerard Deulofeu replace Kevin Mirallas on the right of midfield.
The opening exchanges were far too predictable for the home support: the lions share of possession but not enough bite in the final third.
Naismith went close when his head grazed a cross from the left which had been helped on by Leon Osman, while Deulofeu shot inches past West Ham ‘keeper Adrian’s right post from just outside the box.
The on-loan Barcelona winger has not seen enough of the Goodison turf in the opinion of most Evertonians and the Spaniard’s ability to run at pace and get beyond the full-back excites the Gwlayds Street like nothing else.
But only on occasion did the number 10 manage to beat a man and deliver a punishing cross and his threat was mostly nullified by a stubborn West Ham who squeezed the space out of their own half by setting up to defend.
Gareth Barry lashed wide and Naismith tested Adrian having sprung the visitors offside trap while West Ham were content to send the ball long whenever they recovered it. Kevin Nolan went down under a challenge from Barry just outside the area and was furious when the decision did not go his way. Some things never change. The sky is still blue and Nolan is still a clucking whinge-bag.
Everton’s progress into the West Ham area was laboured and the home team were looking predictable in the final third. But the restart of the second 45 minutes signalled a change in the dynamics of the game as play became stretched.
A superb move down the Everton left saw Pienaar exchange passes with Baines; the South African finding himself inside the West Ham area. After a half of just one recognisable shot on target, the Gwladys Streets encouragement for Pienaar to pull the trigger looked to have broken the deadlock before his shot rebounded off the far post. The ball broke to Deulofeu but Adrian saved easily from his scuffed effort.
Tim Howard was called from his first-half slumbers to palm Andy Carroll’s fierce half-volley over the bar while Nolan went close minutes later with a carefully placed curling shot which went the wrong side of Howard’s post.
Lukaku was introduced on the hour for Osman, with Naismith dropping just behind the towering Belgian but Everton still toiled. Patient and attractive football took the Blues as far as West Ham’s penalty area before a wall of players forced their retreat. At moments where Everton needed quick movement and penetrative passing, play remained careful and slow.
But Lukaku has so often been the difference for Everton this season and so it proved again with the clock ticking away. The Belgian netted the winner from the bench in the reverse fixture at Upton Park and when Baines pulled the ball back from the left channel Lukaku swept home from close range, his first goal since December.
His tally was nearly doubled minutes later when Barry lofted the ball in to the box. Lukaku barely had a sight of goal but let fly with a half volley on the turn which was only a yard over the bar.
Aiden McGeady and Ross Barkley helped play their parts in seeing out the win but it was the likes of James McCarthy and Barry who maintained Everton’s calm, passing game which meant there was little chance of West Ham forcing a late equaliser. Their assurance on the ball has a positive effect on their team mates; with Stones showing incredible maturity to keep possession in defence even under pressure.
As highlights go there were few to choose from and this encounter certainly not be remembered for it’s entertainment value. But the importance of the three points cannot be understated as Roberto Martinez looks to ensure that an exhilarating start to his first season in charge does not fizzle out.