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Lukaku a class above, but Howard a dud in Everton's loss vs. Stoke

After the late win at Newcastle had Evertonians daring to hope their team had turned a corner, it took just two days and a 4-3 home defeat against Stoke to crush such a foolishly optimistic notion.

No amount of finger pointing toward officials for the decisive penalty can excuse the Blues conceding twice in the final 10 minutes, especially having trailed twice before eventually taking the lead in the second half.

Saturday's match-winner Tom Cleverley had set his sights on the top six in the Boxing Day aftermath. If his teammates continue to defend in this fashion, those aims will be as unlikely as they seem now. Everton are still without successive league wins this season.

The sustained excellence of Romelu Lukaku only heightens frustration with a team with all the defensive solidity of a sandcastle. No matter the opposition, scoring five goals in the last two home games should be enough to claim six points. The actual return of no points is simply unacceptable, so too is shipping seven goals at the other end.

There were four changes from Boxing Day, with manager Roberto Martinez clearly mindful of a second game in three days. But those changes revealed their own problems and returned Everton to the exact starting XI that has embraced the festive spirit much too literally and spent December presenting points to grateful opponents. The same formula produces the same outcome, while Martinez and his players continue to talk a better game than the one they deliver on the pitch.

Even with the temporary boost delivered by three points on Boxing Day, this has been a desperately disappointing month for a team with an alarming lack of grit, leadership and backbone, both on the pitch and in the dugout. Injuries to midfielders James McCarthy and Cleverley merely rubbed salt in the various wounds.

EvertonEverton
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Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):

GK Tim Howard, 4 -- The energy wasted sarcastically applauding his own fans could have been put to use attempting even a nominal save for the Stoke second. Allergy to crosses resurfaced for the third goal.

DF Seamus Coleman, 7 -- Blameless for the defensive chaos surrounding him, Coleman dealt well with the Stoke threat on his flank. Unreliable crossing in the final third proved the only blemish on his afternoon.

DF John Stones, 5 -- Harshly penalised for the penalty that decided the match, but this was an uncharacteristically poor performance full of defensive missteps and misplaced passes.

DF Ramiro Funes Mori, 6 -- Neither the best nor the worst of those in blue, the Argentine coped better than most with the movement and pace of the visitors' attacking players.

DF Brendan Galloway, 5 -- Caught out for the first two Stoke goals and struggled to stem the tide down his flank. Not helped by Martinez's perseverance with a setup that leaves the youngster isolated and overrun.

MF James McCarthy, 5 -- Managed a tidy assist for Lukaku's opening goal before injury ended his afternoon early, but otherwise looked like a player rushed back too soon.

MF Gareth Barry, 8 -- How Everton could do with more players echoing the leadership, work rate and overall influence provided by their stand-in captain. It was his intelligent use of the ball at the heart of the second half spell briefly threatening three points.

MF Gerard Deulofeu, 7 -- Disappeared when Stoke led in the earlier stages but improved in the second half and his goal should have been enough for Everton to claim the three points.

MF Ross Barkley, 8 -- Involved in two of the three home goals, this was another authoritative midfield display from Barkley, who has directly contributed to 13 goals in 19 league games this season, with six goals and seven assists to his name.

MF Arouna Kone, 4 -- Complete lack of positional discipline left Galloway fighting an unwinnable battle against Stoke duo Glen Johnson and Xherdan Shaqiri, while the nearer he gets to the opposing goal, the more his goal threat seems to diminish.

FW Romelu Lukaku, 9 -- A class above most players on the pitch, the in-form forward is the league's joint top scorer and led a one-man recovery mission that would have succeeded but for familiar failings elsewhere.

Despite a brace from Romelu Lukaku, Everton came up short against Stoke.
Despite a brace from Romelu Lukaku, Everton came up short against Stoke.

Substitutes:

MF Tom Cleverley, 8 -- One of the better performers for Everton. His introduction for the injured McCarthy in the 26th minute improved the home side and an exquisite assist for Lukaku's second showed his passing range.

MF Steven Naismith, 5 -- Struggled to affect the game after replacing Cleverley in the 65th minute. He fired narrowly wide via a deflection with his only opening. Almost gifted Stoke a goal with a stray pass.

Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.

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