How do you solve a problem like expectation. Ian Doyle gives his verdict on a disappointing night for Everton
Roberto Martinez has taken less than a season to address many of the shortcomings that have too often left Everton FC banging their head on the perceived glass ceiling looking up at the Premier League’s elite.
Ability to beat leading clubs both home and away? Check.
A positive and progressive approach? Check.
Successfully blending youth with experience? Check.
Instilling a fear factor into the opposition? Check.
It left arguably just one remaining hurdle for Martinez and his players to negotiate in their quest for Champions League qualification.
Possibly the single biggest factor, other than raw talent, preventing the Blues from making the most of the openings that had fallen their way in recent years.
Evertonians don’t need reminding of the number of times their team had seemingly been weighed down by the hope they had previously done so well to build.
Everton FC v Crystal Palace at Goodison Park Pics Gavin Trafford
So last night’s visit of Crystal Palace was a chance to banish any lingering doubts the Blues could cope with the expectation a run of seven successive victories – and moving into the top four – had brought.
Arsenal had 24 hours earlier provided evidence that, for all their problems, they refuse to give up without a fight the top-four berth they have considered their own for the past 16 years.
All eyes were on how Everton would react.
They responded by slumping to only their third home league defeat in more than two years.
It made for grim viewing for the Goodison faithful.
In his trademark tracksuit and baseball cap combo, Palace manager Tony Pulis may give off the air of an over-enthusiastic dad but he knows how to organise a team.
And with the Londoners, realistically safe from relegation, having added panache to their grit – most notably in the form of the excellent Yannick Bolasie – the visitors played without fear.
By contrast, Everton appeared gripped by it.
Only when they fell two goals behind did the pressure appear to lift on Martinez’s men and the crowd were roused, and even then it was a brief reprieve before Cameron Jerome’s third goal.
A late Kevin Mirallas goal gave hope of a recovery but even a dramatic draw, which would have been enough to elevate the Blues back into fourth, wouldn’t have changed the disappointed mood around Goodison.
The stadium, such a baying cauldron 10 days earlier in the thrilling defeat of Arsenal, was strangely subdued for the first half, gone the atmosphere that had frightened so many opponents into submission.
It was as though the supporters knew what was at stake.
The game underlined the difference James McCarthy has made since following Martinez from Wigan Athletic on deadline day last September.
Since being handed a full debut in the Capital One Cup defeat at Fulham later that month, McCarthy had started all bar the home Premier League win over the same opposition in December, a game for which he was suspended having accrued five yellow cards.
So eyebrows were raised when the hardworking Republic of Ireland international began on the bench, Martinez later revealing he did not believe the midfielder’s battered body could withstand three testing games in nine days.
The Blues weren’t beaten because McCarthy was absent. Poor marking at set-pieces and being caught on the counter-attack were the primary failings.
But his omission was telling.
Martinez instead opted to field arguably the Blues’ most attacking starting line-up of the campaign, Ross Barkley replacing McCarthy while Aiden McGeady, Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu lined up behind Romelu Lukaku.
It didn’t work, Martinez admitting the sheer desire of his players to win meant they veered from their normal composed approach.
While Barkley improved when belatedly pressed into a more attacking role, Lukaku had one of his infuriatingly ineffective matches while McGeady and Deulofeu were both hooked long before the final whistle.
By the time McCarthy was introduced shortly before the hour, Everton had conceded Jason Puncheon’s neatly-taken 22nd-minute opener and a header from unmarked Palace centre-back Scott Dann four minutes after the break.
Earlier, Everton continued to demonstrate they stand united with their neighbours by poignantly marking this week’s 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
A chain of Liverpool and Everton scarves was brought on to the field during a minute’s applause with ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ playing inside the stadium.
Of course, this defeat doesn’t mean Goodison cannot follow their Mersey rivals in hosting Champions League football next season.
Everton are still only a point adrift of Arsenal and have already shown this season the resilience to recover from such a setback.
The Gunners may have seized the initiative and have, at least on paper, the easier run-in, but there is no chance of the Blues accepting their fate is already sealed.
That final hurdle, though, still needs to be overcome.
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Everton 2 Crystal Palace 3: Eagles’ visit brings more Goodison damage