Everton turned up the heat on Champions League rivals Arsenal with a 3-1 win against Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Steven Naismith’s introduction for Ross Barkley at half-time turned the game in Everton’s favour and it was his goal-bound volley which was deflected in by Fulham stopper David Stockdale.
Ashkan Dejagah came off the bench to level the score with a thumping effort from outside the area, but it was Everton’s remaining two subs who would have the final say.
Aiden McGeady threaded Kevin Mirallas beyond the Fulham back-line and the Belgian finished in style before Naismith poked home the third with three minutes of normal time left.
We highlight 5 Talking Points from Sunday’s thrilling win which extends the Toffees’ league winning streak to five.
Inspiration from the bench
After the comprehensive dispatching of Newcastle on Tuesday, Roberto Martinez came in for praise for rotating his squad; resting regular starter Mirallas and benching McGeady after a promising showing from the Irishman against Swansea.
Martinez- rather against the grain- decided to go with the same XI which started on Tuesday but Everton looked a shadow of the side that were so comfortable at St James’ Park. Fulham not only had the better chances in the opening 45′ but they showed the desire expected of a bottom of the table team fighting for their lives.
But Naismith’s introduction for Barkley- who had drifted aimlessly through the first-half- undoubtedly changed the game in Everton’s favour. There was suddenly intent and purpose to Everton’s play and Naismith was at the centre of it: receiving the ball in pockets of space, releasing it in tight areas and popping up in the right place for the opening goal.
Mirallas seems to have realised he’ll have to pull his weight if he’s to have any part in Everton’s end-of-season run-in latching on to fellow sub McGeady’s fine pass and finishing accurately into the corner.
Substitutes have been a feature of many of Martinez’s wins this season (Osman at Villa Park and the Brittania Stadium; Naismith at home to Villa and Swansea), but this epitomised just how big a part Everton’s subs still have to play in the final nine games.
Baines still so important despite lack of assists
Much has been made of Baines only contributing two assists so far this season after being their stand-out source of goals under the latter years of David Moyes. Martinez insists that the amount of crosses and and indirect chances the England full-back creates constitutes an equal level of influence but there’s no doubt Everton are less reliant on their left-side.
Baines’ influence relies heavily on his partnership with Steven Pienaar and without the South African in the side, it’s even rarer to see the slick-haired Alex Turner wannabe playing neat one-twos to get in behind right-backs.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Everton have been extremely reliant on the Baines-Pienaar relationship, to the extent that any influence on the right side was virtually non-existent. But Seamus Coleman’s stock has rocketed even further under Martinez and has become a major source of the team’s goals in his own right. Opponents are now forced to take both Everton flanks seriously and the Blues have greater options.
In the second half at Craven Cottage, both full-backs could be found hugging the touchline and creeping into Fulham’s half when Everton were in possession. Gareth Barry dropped into a sweeper position which in turn forced Distin and Stones into the full-back areas. Naismith and Osman were central to the Blues’ success in the second half and both brought the two full-backs into play where they could both arrow into the opposition penalty area or combine with those in front of them.
Champions League- it really is ‘on’
The brushing aside of Newcastle on Tuesday represented an ‘it’s on’ moment for many Blues, in the realisation that Everton still have a fair crack at sneaking into fourth spot. While Arsenal appear to be in free-fall, Everton are gaining momentum and a fifth consecutive league win at Craven Cottage has only increased optimism.
Fulham has never been a happy hunting ground for Evertonians and while it’s somewhat of a cliche to say “that’s a game we would have lost last season” there certainly was a sense of self-implosion in the five minutes after Fulham’s equaliser.
But this Martinez side has character to go with their style and the Catalan’s willingness to stick to his guns reaped the reward of three points. Losing momentum ahead of next weeks visit of Arsenal might have dampened spirits on Merseyside, but the win (and the manner of the win) means Evertonians have never been more confident of dispatching Arsene Wenger’s men.
If Everton can shoot down the Gunners next week, just one point lies between the sides as well as a game in hand. Oh yes, it’s very much ‘on’.
Naismith is Everton’s game changer
Naismith has been the player than fans love to hate. An easy scape-goat for frustrated fans in his first season at Goodison, the Scot has reinvented himself under the stewardship of Martinez who has undoubtedly had an ‘incredible’ effect on his increase in fortunes- no less by playing him in his preferred position.
Employed either as the centre forward (especially during Lukaku’s absence in the New Year) or as a second striker, Naismith brings the kind of qualities adored by Martinez to the pitch: desire, determination and an ability to play simple passes.
That these simple passes help string flowing attacks together in tight areas means Naismith offers a welcome alternative to the likes of Barkley, Mirallas and Deulofeu who often choose to go it alone than lay-off a simple one-two. Add to these qualities a knack for crucial goals by popping up in the right areas, and in the words of Martinez you have a player ‘ready to help the team’ in a ‘crucial moment in the season’.
He popped up with the winner against Chelsea; turned defeat into three points at home to Villa; helped put Swansea to the sword in the cup and played his part in two goals on Sunday. How many more ‘moments’ will the Scot have between now and the end of the season?
Stones is a class act
Despite Phil Jagielka being declared fit for the Fulham clash, Martinez once again chose not to include the England centre half in the match-day squad. Your first-choice, international-class captain is usually one of few players you would rush back into your starting XI, whether he was fully fit or not.
But with John Stones showing all the capabilities of a seasoned Premier League centre-half, there is absolutely no need to reinstate Jagielka just yet. And why would you want to? Stones has more than held his own alongside Sylvain Distin, in fact showing more composure in bringing the ball out of defence than the 36 year-old veteran.
17 years separate the centre-back pairing but it was impossible to tell which one had played more than a decade of Premier League football. Stones was fearless with the ball, showing great close control in defence to bring the ball forward, solid passing ability to find his team mates and on several occasions in the second half showed he can take on a player or two.
He is comfortable playing the Martinez way and is prepared to put his body on the line for the team. His performance at St James’ Park and Craven Cottage will give Martinez a real headache with regards to whether to continue with the Stones in next week’s showdown with Arsenal. On current evidence, dropping the youngster would be a very harsh.
Of course the 19 year-old -after barely half a season of Premier League appearances- has a long way to go before becoming the finished article, but considering his current form, isn’t that a very exciting thought?
Have you got a talking point that wasn’t made above? Feel free to leave a comment below…