The team headed to the capital to take on Maurizio Sarri’s undefeated Chelsea. Earning a point against a free-scoring, title-chasing side like this is yet further evidence that we are growing into a very good outfit indeed under this manager.
Needless to say Everton’s starting XI stayed largely the same as it has for the past few weeks. The only change made, through necessity rather than choice, was Yerry Mina being handed his first start in a league game because Kurt Zouma’s ineligibility against his parent club. The Colombian’s full-debut has been hotly anticipated which is only natural when you consider how much time, effort and money the club spent in acquiring him. Marcel Brands was a fan even before his World Cup heroics and was dead-set bringing him to Everton, clearly he’s viewed as a very important figure in what we are hoping to build in the years to come.
Injuries and the good form of Zouma and Michael Keane respectively have meant that the defender has had to be patient for his first proper opportunity and on Sunday it finally arrived. Evertonians everywhere will have all been hoping to see a good performance from a player whom has already charmed them with his upbeat personality and willingness to occasionally deal in the dark arts. The club has lacked strong characters with a “win-at-all-costs” mentality for far too long. Hopefully he can prove himself to be just what we need.
The Toffees started this one in a self-assured and abrasive manner, their first attempt on goal and subsequent corner coming barely two minutes in. Not long after that Bernard went close from the edge of the area but his effort unfortunately fizzled wide. The message nevertheless was clear, Everton were here to fight and not to lay down.
Chelsea meanwhile, playing three days after their trip to Belarus in the Europa League, mostly looked sloppy and laboured. Although they enjoyed lion’s share of possession the Londoners found it difficult to consistently get their best players on the ball and find space. Marco Silva clearly identified Jorginho as Chelsea’s creative heartbeat as the Italian found himself suffocated throughout. By stifling him the visitors successfully cut off Eden Hazard’s main chain of supply and eliminated their opponent’s biggest weapon.
Sarri’s side changed tack and resorted to trying to get the ball in the box from the wide areas. Alonso and Azpilicueta each managed to whip in a decent amount crosses but all of their deliveries were dealt with by Everton’s new centre-back pairing, Mina and Keane. The latter continued his impressive renaissance by winning all his aerial duels over the course of the afternoon (as did Mina by the way). It’s always great to see a player come back from the brink as he has and that England recall is fully deserved.
Because of the hosts’ inability to carve us open it did not take long for tempers to flare between the two sides. Jorginho, clearly frustrated at being so effectively man-marked, threw in an extremely poor challenge to hack down Sigurdsson (in what appears to have injured him too going into the international break). It looked bad in real time and even worse on replay, how the former Napoli midfielder stayed on the pitch is a mystery. Alonso too was a culprit, his foul on Walcott was horrid but in the eyes of referee Kevin Friend did not even merit a booking.
Another flashpoint, this one actually comical, came from a moment between Bernard and Antonio Rudiger. The Brazilian went down in the Chelsea half and then complained about the lack of free kick awarded. He and his opponent exchanged angry words and then came together, head to chest, to make sure neither was left in any doubt about the other’s feelings. The instant physical contact was made the Chelsea man went down as if snipered, his hands clutching his face in apparent agony. His alleged assaulter, someone a full foot shorter than he is, look downwards in bemusement before trotting off. Sky commentators upon seeing the replay scoffed at how pathetic his antics were. Both were subsequently shown yellows for the altercation but only one of them walked away his reputation in tatters.
The first half was as ugly as it was competitive and it was only shortly before half-time when Everton endured their first real scare. A clever routine on a Willian set piece allowed Alonso to find himself free at the edge of the area and he met the delivery with a first time volley at goal. Kept down and packing plenty of power, Jordan Pickford was called into action to beat it away. It was the first shot on target of the game up until that point and a reminder that the Toffees couldn’t switch off, not for a one moment.
The beginning of the second half was nearly a disaster. Chelsea kicked off and straight away played a ball up to Hazard, who then quickly hit a cross into the path of a charging Alvaro Morata. The Spanish international did not catch it cleanly but did steer it towards goal and was kept out only by Everton’s no.1 diving at full stretch.
A golden opportunity of our own came only a few minutes later from a hopeful hoof up field. Chelsea’s backline was caught napping and released was Walcott for what should have been a clear run at goal. However, his first touch was far too heavy and the ball unfortunately escaped him and into the arms of a grateful Chelsea goalkeeper. Things just aren’t happening for Theo right now but that was undoubtedly a chance he should have done better with. If there is one player who’s going to be dropped soon the smart money would have to be on him, the winger just isn’t cutting it at the moment and others are knocking hard on the door.
Near the hour mark things, albeit briefly, went back to being a tad pantomime. Ross Barkley was sent out from the Chelsea bench to warm up and because of the stadium’s design was forced to do so directly in front of the Everton’s travelling contingent of fans. Rather than ignore them, or just keeping his back turned to face the other way, our former “diamond” decided to applaud and sheepishly grin as he approached the away supporters. Needless to say his apparent efforts to be respectful were not met in kind.
“THERE’S ONLY ONE GREEDY B*STARD” shouts could be heard loud and clear to those watching on television. Chelsea fans came back with their own supportive chant but in truth the player was made to look like a fool. Naively hoping that his former adorers would be willing to accept some sort of olive branch, that things could perhaps be amicable, shows the level of intelligence Evertonians eventually came to expect from Ross Barkley. You simply can’t abandon the club that raised and developed you, supported you through a double leg break, you deliberately scammed out of £20m on your way out the door and then think there’ll no hard feelings when you next meet up. When Barkley’s football career is over hopefully a stint as a Chaser on ITV’s hit game show awaits him, to merely become a coach or TV pundit would be sad waste of his obvious intellect.
The rest of the game carried on in the same vein as what had come before. Chelsea probed and prodded, Everton remained organised and resilient, the man in charge continued to guess which at which decisions where the right ones.
In all honesty the hosts probably should have scored. Hazard’s deflected effort so very nearly looped over the head of Pickford, Alonso rattled the far post with a low shot from the box’s edge and Willian dithered a split second too long to drill his effort across goal and wide.
Everton nonetheless had more chances of our own as well. Sigurdsson fired a dipping strike down the centre to force Kepa to tip the ball over and Ademola Lookman, off the bench in the 64th minute, at one point managed to wriggle his through several Chelsea defenders to force the goalkeeper into a evasive action and win a corner.
Morata, Chelsea’s in-form striker, had particularly frustrating day. With service behind him cut off by some expert man-marking he resorted throwing himself to ground at every opportunity in hope of being gifted something. Needless to say it did not work, even when Yerry Mina at one point appeared to tussle and genuinely impede him. His theatrical tumble ensured the officials did not take his side though and his day was summed up when, having finally got the ball in the net, he was flagged for having strayed several yards offside. It was the only way he could possibly have escaped both Keane and Mina’s pockets. The pair of them had a truly superb first showing together, hopefully it’s a partnership that Evertonians will love watching for many years to come.
Not even Barkley’s late introduction could inspire Chelsea to break through Everton’s wall of resistance. The last few minutes were tense but at no point were the Toffees in a full-blown state of panic. The only chances of note in the final ten were a terrible long-range effort from the man of the moment and free-kick 35 yards from goal which was launched into a frantic penalty area but strongly headed clear. When the final whistle came no one in their right mind could argue that the away side hadn’t deserved their share of the spoils.
In previous years the stage would have been set for the former hero now pariah to come off the bench and break Evertonian hearts. Not this year however, this year this Everton side hasn’t been reading whatever scripts that have been pre-written for them. This was the third occasion this season the Blues have gone away to face formidable opposition on their own turf and instead of wilting performed admirably. This time though the team has managed to leave the scene of the battle with something to show for it, a very hard-earnt and valuable point.
In keeping a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge Everton managed a feat that teams like Barcelona, Liverpool, United, Spurs and Arsenal all couldn’t having played there this calendar year. It’s a sure sign that we’re making steps, small ones perhaps, but undeniably forwards compared to where we were last season and even before that. Long may the progress continue.