Thursday 14 December 2017

Martinez plays down reliance on Lukaku after striker sinks Saints

Everton 2 Southampton 1

Seamus Coleman of Everton scores the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Southampton at Goodison Park on December 29, 2013 in Liverpool.
Seamus Coleman of Everton scores the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Southampton at Goodison Park on December 29, 2013 in Liverpool.

Chris Bascombe

For three-quarters of the afternoon at Goodison Park, it seemed Romelu Lukaku was enjoying a prolonged festive break.

His touch was poor, interplay with advancing midfielders non-existent and the home crowd were so concerned they must have briefly considered asking Roberto Martinez to offer Nikica Jelavic a rare chance to find a winner against Southampton.

Instead, Lukaku emerged from anonymity, ending a five-game goal drought to become the match-winner by slamming in after James McCarthy's slick pass on 74 minutes.

You will not find a more vivid example of a goal altering the character of a striker, as Lukaku ended the game looking more like the player who has prompted a season of head-scratching as to why he is at Goodison Park and not Stamford Bridge.

Such moments of class further underline Lukaku's potential -- the ability to transform a fixture with the swing of the boot -- although Martinez insisted that there were no concerns about the youngster's recent run of form.

WORKING

"I don't agree," he countered when it was suggested the Belgian was toiling prior to his winner. "From the outside, yes, you judge a striker by his goalscoring ability. He was not getting down because he has been working on different parts of his game and we were not worried. Obviously you want the player to score, but he attracts two or three players towards him.

"Romelu, when he arrived, was a young player who could not play more than 60-65 minutes; now he has gone to another level. I thought that he was magnificent against Swansea last week without scoring. I was delighted with his finish, but it was an add-on."

Such are the limits of Martinez's attacking options that he cannot afford Lukaku to lose goalscoring form so the relief will extend beyond the collection of the three scruffiest points at Goodison this season.

Defeat was tough on Mauricio Pochettino's side, who had threatened to leave Merseyside with at least a draw through a combination of an astute substitution and poor goalkeeping.

In fact, it was the tactical switch by the Argentinian coach that offered both hope and also proved to his side's undoing when Gaston Ramirez was sent on to save the game after 65 minutes. Ramirez replaced the defensive midfielder Jack Cork and briefly started to run the game, striking a fearsome equaliser six minutes later which, in retrospect, should have been saved by Everton's deputy 'keeper Joel Robles.

As Southampton poured forward looking for the win they were exposed on the counter-attack, Everton ending in the ascendant.

The climax aside, it was a subdued fixture that entertained tacticians more than neutrals, though it began well enough for the hosts, thanks to Seamus Coleman's ninth-minute opener.

By modern inflationary standards, Everton signed Coleman for a packet of crisps and a light bulb from Sligo Rovers in 2009. You will not find a better bargain than his £60,000 acquisition in the Premier League era, the Irish international currently elevating his game to a point where he is building a portfolio of spectacular goals.

He repeated the trick that he had performed at Swansea a week ago, easing the home nerves as they struggled with a series of enforced personnel changes. Coleman waltzed past James Ward-Prowse before directing a lethal right-footer into the top corner.

It was a strike out of character with an encounter lacking goalmouth incident until the later stages, with both sides endeavouring to play an attractive game but, in Everton's case especially, lacking the fluidity of recent fixtures.

The return of Leighton Baines after a month's absence at least counterbalanced the senior absentees -- with Tim Howard and Gareth Barry suspended and Phil Jagielka injured -- and, given his extra responsibility, McCarthy was outstanding, but there was an understandable lack of cohesion in the home side.

Coleman's strike was the only home effort of note in a lacklustre first half. Ramirez's arrival shifted the momentum, but it was Everton who took advantage, allowing Martinez to sustain genuine Champions League ambitions.

"I think we can improve, but 37 points is an outstanding return halfway through the season," he said. "We have had two defeats, the draws have been more unfair draws than lucky ones, but it is impossible to start talking about targets in December."

After their fine start to the season, Southampton have now won only once in eight games. Pochettino was asked if he was worried. "No. Not at all," he said. "I think we deserved much more. From the three shots on goal, they scored twice. We created a lot of chances."

The Saints now find themselves in mid-table, European qualification ambitions already looking distant. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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