Wednesday 11 December 2019

Champions League dream slips out of Everton's grasp

Southampton 2 Everton 0

Everton's Tim Howard watches the ball go into the net from teammate Antolín Alcaraz
Everton's Tim Howard watches the ball go into the net from teammate Antolín Alcaraz
Everton's James McCarthy and Southampton's Dejan Lovren battle for the ball
Southampton's Luke Shaw holds off a challenge from Everton's Romelu Lukaku
Everton's Ross Barkley and Southampton's Victor Wanyama compete for the ball
Southampton's Dejan Lovren controls the ball under pressure from Everton's Steven Naismith

Jacob Steinberg At St Mary's Stadium

Roberto Martinez might have used up all his miracles when he led Wigan Athletic to the FA Cup last season and, if that is the case, then Everton's Champions League dream is surely over.

Making predictions is always a dangerous business and Martinez's sides have been renowned for their powers of escapism in the past.

But a victory for Arsenal against Newcastle tomorrow would move them four points clear of Everton with two matches left and the battle for fourth would be all but over.

This was a traumatic defeat for Everton, one that began with Antolin Alcaraz scoring a spectacular own-goal inside the first minute and ended with a wonderfully vibrant Southampton playing keep-ball as minutes ticked away.

For Everton, dishevelled and despondent by the end, what was most galling was that they had almost beaten themselves.

"We are going give everything we can," Martinez vowed, yet Everton knew that there could be no more slips. Losing to Crystal Palace at home 11 days ago, a defeat which suggested that Everton do not quite possess the cold-blooded conviction required to take the next step in their evolution, left them with no room for error, even though that is often when Wigan were in their element under Martinez.

The feeling before kick-off was that the game would be defined by whether Everton could cope without the injured Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin and on this evidence, their cannot return soon enough.

Suffice to say, it was a difficult afternoon for their replacements, Alcaraz and John Stones. Alcaraz looked every inch a player who had not started since January, so rusty you feared he might grind to a complete creaking halt, while Stones was a bag of nerves.

Everton will also assess Leighton Baines after he limped off near the end, feeling his knee and his calf, although Martinez said it was not a serious injury. "It's a matter of days," he said.

While Southampton played well, Everton's inept defending was the story and given what was at stake, this was not a time for farce. But farce was what we got and it took less than a minute for Southampton to expose Everton.

Rickie Lambert was found in space on the left and when he aimed for Sam Gallagher in the middle, Alcaraz took matters into his own hands, flying through the air and bulleting a sensational diving header past a stunned Tim Howard, a Keith Houchen of a header that will stand the test of time. In its own way, it was a brilliant goal.

Roy Hodgson, a fixture at St Mary's these days, will have delighted in Adam Lallana's turn away from James McCarthy to initiate the move, while the way Gerard Deulofeu was kept quiet by Southampton's right-back, Nathaniel Clyne, may have caught the England boss' eye.

Stones is another player whose performances have impressed Hodgson recently, but he picked the wrong time to have a stinker. He could have given away a penalty after handling a Lallana cross and when he appeared to get a faint glance to Clyne's cross after 31 minutes, Seamus Coleman stooped to head past a thoroughly fed-up Howard.

"Our arrogant way of playing got affected," Martinez admitted. "You cannot underestimate the good run that the team has been in. Today was a real setback, but we'll learn from this. We're still a very young group, the amount of changes we had to make made it extra difficult today, but we'll be ready for next Saturday."

Everton, whose extensive injury list meant that they named a 16-year-old, Ryan Ledson, on the bench, were not much better in attack, where the underwhelming Romelu Lukaku wasted three presentable opportunities.

Southampton will say they also had injury problems to overcome, but their energy rattled Everton, who felt that Leon Osman, replacing Ross Barkley at half-time, should have had a penalty when he tumbled over Dejan Lovren's outstretched leg. McCarthy also had a strong claim ignored and Osman was booked for diving instead, a decision Martinez called "cheap". But not quite as cheap as Everton's defending.

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