Everton v Manchester City FC
Ross Barkley ‘s swashbucklingly wondrous strike, Brazilian in its execution and perhaps its reward, was the 21st time Everton have taken the lead in a Premier League match this season.
For only the second time, they lost.
And the identity of the opposition on each occasion was the same – Manchester City.
There’s a very good reason for that. Everton have won 18 of those 21 matches in which they have scored first.
City are the only team who have managed to break down the Blues once they’ve got their noses in front.
Because Manuel Pellegrini has the kind of expensively-assembled squad at his disposal that no other coach can call on. While he can call on players who can conjure up goals from losing positions – Everton have been losing more and more players in recent weeks to injuries, strains and fatigue, and on Saturday those differences told.
Sergio Aguero, a £35m acquisition, drilled in an equaliser. When he limped off, £30m summer signing, Fernandinho, trotted on.
Edin Dezko, a £27m purchase, showed that for all his cumbersome appearance he is an adroit finisher in and around the six yard box.
YaYa Toure, a £24m swoop from Barcelona pushed dangerously further forward in Aguero’s absence, while another £24m acquisition in David Silva was only needed for the final 16 minutes.
That kind of spending power offers decisive quality where it matters most. It was decisive each time the two teams clashed this season.
And it is what Everton will be up against next season when they try to build on Roberto Martinez ‘s richly promising first season at the Goodison helm. Predictably Martinez sees it as a testing challenge to be overcome rather than a barrier to progress.
Perhaps he is looking at an example from his homeland where Atletico Madrid, relegated in 2002, regularly forced to sell players of the quality of Radamel Falcao, Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero, and perennially dwarved by the spending power of giants like Real and Barcelona, are now La Liga champions elect and anticipating a first European Cup final for 40 years.
Martinez might have been mimicking Diego Simeone when he said: “I kind of enjoy the challenge of trying to compete against these sides without having the same sort of finances. I don’t see it as a problem. I think the fair play ruling in the Champions League is a positive one.”
He added: “I see it as part of being in the best league in the world. I really quite enjoy having a team facing a team of such spending power and finding ways to compete with them on a football pitch and I think we have done that this season.”
With a Premier League record points haul of 69 – despite a slow start when players adapted to Martinez’s new philosophy – Everton have certainly competed.
They competed on Saturday, too, despite Kevin Mirallas, Sylvain Distin, Steven Pienaar and Gareth Barry all missing from the certain-starters roster, Phil Jagielka back in for his first match in months, while useful squad players like Bryan Oviedo, Darron Gibson and Arouna Kone remained on the long-term injury list.
They scored an opening goal of outstanding quality, pulled back another in the second half when City led, and were a late Joe Hart block away from snatching an equaliser.
City had top class, expensive, quality when it mattered most, while Everton didn’t get the slice of luck their neighbours enjoyed when City last visited Merseyside.
That afternoon Ya Ya Toure limped off early at Anfield, then when City were dominant and looking more and more likely to score, Vincent Kompany made an uncharacteristic error of an imperious campaign.
City made no errors on Saturday. Indeed quite the opposite. With Everton starting the second half like a train and looking likely to level up the scores, Joe Hart made a stunning fingertip save from a goalbound Steven Naismith shot.
Seconds later City scored a decisive third. There are still a handful of conspiracy theorists, including some in the media who really shouldn’t allow their partisanship to cloud their judgement, who believed Everton lacked intensity against their visitors.
That’s a blinkered analysis, borne of title-slipping disappointment. I’ve been at grounds where Everton have downed tools for the summer.
The final match of the 1998/99 season when the Blues rolled over at The Dell and allowed Southampton a free pass into the top flight was disgraceful.
A 5-1 hiding on the last day at Manchester City in 2004 was almost as bad. While a lack of quality, pure and simple, allowed Arsenal to romp to the title with a 4-0 stroll in 1997/98.
This was nothing like any of those.
Everton were committed – 59 per cent possession compared to City’s 41, forcing more corners than their visitors and enjoying almost as many shots on target – while Goodison was noisy and raucous.
If it wasn’t as intense and intimidating as it had been two weeks previously that was because David Moyes wasn’t in the opposite dug-out – and the prospect of Champions League football had slipped significantly since that afternoon.
But those that believe Everton laid an invitation out for City to accept three points – on and off the pitch – are deluded.
The crowd reaction certainly wasn’t a repeat of the 1995 experience, when Liverpool were in with a chance of handing the Premier League title to their arch rivals.
That afternoon Liverpool beat the champions elect, Blackburn Rovers, with Jamie Redknapp scoring a goal that opened up an opportunity for Manchester United to take the title at West Ham.
They didn’t take it. But Redknapp recalled an odd atmosphere at Anfield.“I’ve never heard the Kop so quiet after a Liverpool goal,” he said. “It was eerie. Everybody thought my goal had just handed the title to Manchester United, and it didn’t sit quite right with the fans.”
If the title-winning implications were similar at Goodison on Saturday, the celebrations were not.
Evertonians celebrated their goals with an enthusiastic fervour. They weren’t match winning celebrations because Manchester City boasted the kind of quality that only title-winning money can buy.
But Roberto Martinez will talk of challenges rather than barriers, and he will try again next season.
Martinez believes that imaginative coaching and tactical acumen can compete on an equal footing with financially superior rivals, and that is something to be celebrated on both sides of Stanley Park.
More Everton FC stories
Barkley and Stones may be ready for World Cup, but we should look after them
What we learned from defeat to Manchester City
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