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May 12, 2014

Everton end fine season in style

Everton finished with a flourish on Sunday, capping an impressive campaign with a 2-0 win over a Hull side drifting towards an FA Cup final. The Blues end Roberto Martinez's debut season on 72 points -- you might say it is classic Everton to miss the top four with a points total good enough for Champions League football in four of the previous five seasons.

Martinez could even afford to rest Ross Barkley and John Stones, two of the stars to emerge this term, for this end of season fixture. The reward for Barkley's breakthrough –- along with the club’s young player and goal of the season awards -– is a deserved place in the England World Cup squad, while Stones -- despite being in stronger form than several taken instead -- has to settle for a standby spot.

- Baines: Benchmark set - O'Farrell: Tread carefully in Lukaku pursuit

Fittingly, in a debut season in which Martinez has beaten numerous club records in the Premier League, three of his main summer acquisitions were the stars of the show at the KC Stadium. Returning to the side after his enforced absence against Manchester City, Gareth Barry resumed normal service in midfield. So often quickest to read the game in the middle of the park, Barry remains the starting point for attacks. He is the one who keeps the team ticking and the ball moving.

Alongside him, James McCarthy delivered the kind of display that warranted further recognition at the recent end of season awards. The midfielder also chose a timely moment to grab his first goal in royal blue; the driving run beyond the home defence typifies the non-stop approach witnessed since his August arrival.

Another lung-busting run fashioned a chance for Romelu Lukaku, as McCarthy continued to cover every blade of grass. Blink and you miss him. When Phil Jagielka made a first-half error, there was little surprise about the identity of the player covering for him. There was McCarthy, arriving on the scene in a flash, dashing backwards to quell the danger.

Completing the trio is Lukaku. Like Barry, the Chelsea forward is another of the overly scrutinised loan deals boosting Everton this year. Involved in the build-up for the first, applying the finish for the second, the striker departs for the World Cup convincingly. Pace, power and precision all surfaced as Lukaku shrugged off the Hull defence before firing past Allan McGregor, to remind those in attendance of his undoubted potential.

This was Lukaku’s 16th of the season, with 15 of those in the Premier League, which is the best return by an Everton forward since Yakubu (15) in 2007-08. However, whether this is the last Evertonians will see of Lukaku remains unclear, although Martinez is sure to do everything in his power to convince the youngster that he can achieve his Champions League dreams at Goodison in the near future.

Still, while it was Lukaku supplying the killer touch for the decisive goal of the game, the second goal was also about the passing preceding it. Of the 61 goals scored in the league, this was the one best demonstrating the impact of Martinez and his successful overhaul of the team's style.

Starting with Tim Howard and finishing with Leon Osman sliding a pass through to Lukaku, this was a delightful 17-pass move covering the length of the pitch. In spite of the pressure applied by Hull players, namely when the move began deep in Everton territory, panic did not appear. Calmly and accurately, those in blue simply passed and moved their way out of an orange and black cul-de-sac.

As the clock ticked down, the welcome sight of a returning Steven Pienaar crowned a professional, productive performance, while other loanees, Gerard Deulofeu and Lacina Traore, were able to say their goodbyes via brief cameos.

The final whistle ended this exciting season-long adventure. Falling just short of the Champions League in a season of supposed transition, thoughts turn toward next season. If there is more summer magic from Martinez in the transfer market, Everton could go one better in 2014-15.