Everton grab advantage over Man City using cautious approach
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three quick thoughts from Everton's 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semifinals at Goodison Park on Wednesday.
1. Advantage Everton
For the second time in three years, Roberto Martinez secured a notable win over Manchester City in a cup competition. The difference is that, whereas the first won Wigan the 2013 FA Cup, Everton still have 90 minutes at the Etihad Stadium to negotiate if they are to reach the Capital One Cup final. They are nearer to ending a 21-year wait for silverware, but sizable obstacles still await in the form of City and, probably, Liverpool.
Yet this was at least a reminder that Martinez can prosper as a big-game manager and that while Everton are underachieving in the Premier League, they have the talent and the resolve to suggest their season can yet be a success. A team that had lost leads in careless fashion provided a blend of style and substance. Ross Barkley brought both, making a series of driving runs.
So did Romelu Lukaku, whose 12th goal in as many games was the winner on the night. It was all the more notable as it amounted to a fine response from Everton, just two minutes after City had equalised. Gareth Barry, exiled from City by Manuel Pellegrini, crossed and Lukaku headed past Willy Caballero for the winner in the 78th minute.
Without touching the ball, Lukaku had a part to play in Everton's opener, too. John Stones and Lukaku had already had goals disallowed, both long after the offside flag had been raised, before Barkley took aim right before half-time. Lukaku was offside and perhaps in Caballero's line of sight, but not deemed to be interfering with play. After one Argentine saved the Englishman's pile driver, another, Ramiro Funes Mori, scored the rebound.
A slow burner of a game began to take on some unusual features. Eliaquim Mangala suffered the ignominy of being substituted for the second time in five days. Jesus Navas scored for the first time since September 2014, courtesy of a defence-splitting pass from Sergio Aguero. Everton, whose only win in their eight previous games came against Newcastle, acquired a much bigger scalp.
Everton were aided, however, by the visitors. City again failed to play to their potential. If they had hoped that Saturday's victory at Watford would bring a transformation in their away form, they were disappointed. They have now won only one of their past eight games on the road against English opposition. It is the sort of run that could cost them, whether in the Capital One Cup, the Premier League or both.
2. Martinez rewarded for cautious approach
Think of the two most attacking managers in the Premier League and Pellegrini and Martinez would spring to mind. Yet even purists have their pragmatic side. Cavaliers decided it was a day for caution. The Spaniard was rewarded. The Chilean may rue his decision to try to shut up shop.
Goals have been as frequent at Goodison Park as they are rare at Old Trafford. Martinez has recognised Everton have conceded too often, especially on their own turf. They have the worst home defensive record in the top flight. Their manager argued that there were signs of improvement in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Tottenham, although the fact the visitors hit the woodwork twice shows they were inches from scoring three times. Navas' goal means Everton have still kept only one clean sheet at home this season, but this time they definitely showed more solidity.
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Each manager brought in a holding midfielder, with Everton's Muhamed Besic and City's Fabian Delph both charged with adding solidity. The Bosnian was rewarded for an influential cameo against Tottenham and snapped into challenges. Pellegrini demoted Raheem Sterling to the bench. The £49 million man is the regular fall guy when Yaya Toure is shunted further forward; Pellegrini will never publicly concur with the suggestions that the Ivorian can be a liability defensively in defining away games, but he afforded his defence added protection in the form of Delph.
Each manager introduced his reserve goalkeeper, too, though they bring contrasting responses. Joel Robles is a cause celebre, while Caballero is seen as a liability. Neither theory was really tested in a sedate start. Thereafter the Spaniard went on to make fine saves from Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, pressing his case to displace Everton No. 1 Tim Howard on a more regular basis.
But while Caballero saved well from Barkley later, the temptation was to wonder if, immediately before the opener, the benched Joe Hart would have pushed the midfielder's initial shot to safety. City's deficit meant that while Martinez could persevere with his original game plan, Pellegrini changed his. Off went Delph and on came the eventual scorer Navas. City posed more of a threat thereafter.
3. De Bruyne's away day troubles continue
The surprise was not that a winger scored for City, but his identity. Navas appeared to have lost all confidence in front of goal. De Bruyne has displayed plenty over the past four months. Indeed, if awards were given for excellence at the Etihad Stadium, the latter would be a prime contender. The Belgian has been brilliant on home turf since his £54 million move from Wolfsburg. He started brightly on the road but, much like City, has found the going tougher since then on his travels. The reality is that eight of his 10 goals have come at home. So, too, have nine of his 10 assists. The only exceptions came back in September, when the Belgian struck at Tottenham and scored one and made another at Sunderland.
A set piece offered his first chance to alter that statistic, but Nicolas Otamendi headed his corner wide. For the first half, however, De Bruyne was stranded on the right. City can interchange positions more fluidly when David Silva starts as the No. 10. With Toure in the central role, the summer signing remained on the right, with the Spaniard tucked in off the left. So Pellegrini altered his approach, bringing on Navas, moving Toure into a deeper role and sending De Bruyne to the left.
De Bruyne was brighter there, drawing a fine save from Robles with a 25-yard shot, but the wait for an away goal goes on. Yet while Leighton Baines kept him relatively quiet when De Bruyne was on the right, the worrying news for the Everton and England left-back is that he has to face the Belgian twice more in the next three weeks. Both at the Etihad Stadium.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.