Everton re-affirmed their Champions League credentials, moving into fourth with a 2-0 victory over Norwich City.
Gareth Barry scored and impressed throughout in a game which should have seen more goals. Kevin Mirallas capped a bright performance with a stunning free-kick at Goodison Park, sealing a win that moves them above neighbours Liverpool.
Roberto Martinez had to cope without the talents of Ross Barkley who was forced to watch from the stands with a suspected broken toe. While Leon Osman replaced the 20 year-old, Goodison saw more changes to the second string which dispatched a dismal QPR in the FA Cup last weekend.
Phil Jagielka came back in for Antolin Alcaraz who has impressed in the captain’s absence while first team regulars Leighton Baines, Tim Howard, Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku were all reinstated for the first Premier League game at Goodison in 2014.
New signing Aiden McGeady was paraded in front of the crowd before the game as he passed a medical on Saturday morning, but last week’s two-goal hero Nikica Jelavic was absent from the match-day squad amid rumours he is set to complete a £7.5m switch to Hull City.
McGeady’s introduction looked to give the ground a boost ahead of kick off but things almost went pear-shaped just seconds into the game when Bradley Johnson’s miss-hit effort pea-rolled towards Howard. Had the Norwich man made the desired contact, Everton could have found themselves behind within the first minute.
As it was Everton survived the scare and set up siege on ex-Toffees keeper John Ruddy’s goal at the Park End. Seamus Coleman and Lukaku both had shots that were dragged wide having cut in from the right before the Belgian had a gilt-edged chance to open the scoring.
Appearing on the left flank, Mirallas sent the ball swinging in with pace to the back post but Lukaku failed to make sufficient contact, heading marginally wide.
The move followed some excellent football from the home side; as patient as it was as pleasing on the eye, with Baines and Pienaar linking up well with support from Barry down the left.
Despite Everton’s possession Norwich were certainly in the game and looked to hurt Everton with a direct ball to forward Gary Hooper. With 15 minutes gone the diminutive striker got behind the Everton defence for a one-on-one attempt at goal but his touch evaded him and Howard did well to smother.
Both Mirallas and Baines shot off target before Goodison greeted the first goal on 23 minutes and what a rare and emphatic finish it was. Lukaku showed typical strength to guard the ball in Norwich’s half before laying it off for Barry.
The loan star advanced with ball and, finding himself just yards from the penalty area with no one closing him down, struck a powerful shot which flew past the diving Ruddy.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel- who rescued a point for Norwich on the opening day in this reverse fixture – responded with a curling effort which had Howard at full reach to deny the Dutchman.
Osman went close on two occasions, first thwarted by a vital interception from Martin Olsson and then firing over the bar after van Wolfswinkel gifted possession to Everton.
Coleman then sliced wide after Everton had worked an opening from left to right whilst Norwich came closest to equalising in first-half stoppage-time. Another lofted ball found Hooper inside the penalty area but again Howard was quick out to block his attempt at goal.
Everton’s dominance in the first half was reflected in their 68% possession but only two of their 13 attempts on goal were on target and the single goal deficit meant Norwich were still in the game.
But Martinez didn’t allow his troops to rest on their laurels and Everton picked up where they left off in the second half, first Coleman heading weakly at Ruddy before Mirallas laid on for James McCarthy whose shot was deflected over from outside the box.
But Norwich too had chances and van Wolfswinkel will rue his lack of composure when he swung wildly over the bar after finding himself in a good position.
The game may have turned out very differently had the Dutchman took advantage, as minutes later Mirallas struck a stunning free-kick which gave Ruddy no chance to his right.
It was well within Baines territory and the full back looked set to take the set-piece having been felled outside the area on 59 minutes. But Mirallas -who had his best game in Blue since before Christmas- spared the wrath of the left back with a perfectly placed finish.
Everton looked hungry for the third and Lukaku thought he had it when he rounded Ruddy and converted from close range. The Belgian was busy celebrating in front of the Gwladys Street before he realised the linesman’s raised flag for offside.
With Everton forced into changes- Osman and Pienaar making way for Johnny Heitinga and Steven Naismith- Norwich sought to take advantage of a home side who looked content to see out victory.
Robert Snodgrass came closest in the 79th minute with a header into the ground but he was denied by the upright. Nathan Redmond was introduced and the winger caused worry for Everton down the left. But despite Norwich’s endeavour to the last, it would not be there day.
Everton claimed a comfortable victory, the scoreline of which could and probably should have been quite different but the clean sheet will no doubt delight Martinez and Blues just as much as the glut of goals we’re used to seeing would.