Southampton proves a game too far for Everton
Everton's top four hopes suffered a potentially fatal setback at Southampton and the 2-0 defeat was all the more frustrating since the Blues conspired to beat themselves. The Saints were the better side but they did not have to work for the three points -- Everton gift wrapped them, tied a nice little bow on top and handed them over.
Having previously found a way to win regardless of their performance, which led to an impressive seven-game winning streak in recent weeks, Everton are suffering by way of their own inconsistencies.
Lurching from the sublime to the stale against Arsenal and Crystal Palace, then back to the former for the visit of Manchester United, this performance was most definitely the latter. Everton barely registered as an attacking force, which meant there was no way back from the costly defensive errors in the early stages.
In truth, this looked to be a game too far for many. Injuries -- both long-term and ill-timed -- and a sustained over-reliance on a select few seemed to finally catch up with a squad lacking the depth of the big spenders around them.
Everton had to cope without their first choice defensive pairing of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin and the clever Steven Pienaar; not to mention those who continue to gather dust on the long-term injury list.
With Distin joining Jagielka on the sidelines, there was an inexperienced, haphazard feel to the central defence. For all his progress and potential, this was perhaps the stark reminder that John Stones is still only 19-years-old, learning his trade in the unforgiving environment of the Premier League.
Alongside him, Antolin Alcaraz had a nightmare start, heading into his own net with less than a minute on the clock. Both central defenders' days went from bad to worse soon after, missing the cross that hit a helpless Seamus Coleman on its way past Tim Howard.
Shorn of both first choice centre backs, and with Howard given the captain's armband (how a man who spends the match behind the play can 'lead' a team is a mystery) Everton lacked leadership. This was a rudderless outfit in desperate need of guidance and direction.
One player who had direction was Aiden McGeady, with the substitute at least threatening to fashion a chance or a moment of inspiration, and he is certainly deserving of greater involvement in upcoming matches, especially if recent displays are compared to those of a lacklustre Gerard Deulofeu.
Still, sidestepping this dismal fare for a moment -- as hard as that may be -- the bigger picture comes into focus. It is credit to Roberto Martinez and his close knit, overworked group of players that Everton and fourth spot are still being mentioned in the same sentence.
When the Blues slid out of the FA Cup with their tails between their legs last month, having crumbled in the closing stages at the Emirates, the season appeared over. Tired bodies and minds were the overriding theme. Few could have predicted this subsequent run. As damaging as this and the Palace defeat are, eight wins in the last ten matches is a sterling effort.
Picking themselves up after the cup exit, Martinez's men sat 14 points and 15 goals behind the Gunners in the table. This rare, painful, damaging off-day is a bitter blow, but it is the work to this point that closed the 14-point gap and ensured a genuine challenge for fourth.
Fatigue had seemingly taken its toll at the Emirates, yet it was here at Southampton that the squad finally gave up the ghost. But this is not failure -- disappointing as it is, it is not failure -- this is something to build on.
European football (of some kind) is all but guaranteed, which is a tremendous effort in a season of supposed transition and uncertainty. Martinez has toppled several club records this season, and will want to topple many more in years to come.
Despite falling narrowly short of the Champions League (in all likelihood), this campaign is proof that the top four ceiling is not made of granite, and that -- given time and sufficient backing from the board -- Everton have the means to break it under Martinez.