What a difference a few games make. Just a few weeks ago, following Everton’s calamitous exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Wigan and on the back of some pretty poor performances in the league, it seemed likely that our season was over. Not only did the club’s dream of Champions League football appear to be turning to dust, but even the commiserative prize of the Europa was also looking like an outside bet.
Skip forward to today and suddenly all bets are back on. Everton began the day six points outside Champions League qualification but by the final whistle we were four behind fourth-placed Chelsea, who slipped up at Southampton. Yes, we have a run-in that includes tricky fixtures against Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea but despite this, that little flicker of hope, something that appeared to have been extinguished a few weeks back, seems to be burning a little brighter right now.
Despite there being quite a gulf in league positions between the two teams in yesterday’s fixture, I doubt any Evertonian considered this an easy game. Stoke might have had a really tough 2013 so far, but they are still a side that could beat anyone on the day. And this isn’t, as some lazy supporters, pundits and journalists tend to contend, that it’s because Stoke play negative football and break teams down through attrition rather than guile but rather because they are a good side, who can break down teams any number of different ways. Were it not for the absence of a proven goalscorer amongst their ranks, it’s likely that Stoke would be having a much better season than they are. And even without one, they can still be dangerous, as they proved on several occasions yesterday.
This was by no means a commanding victory by Everton and it’s fair to say that the game could have gone either way. Stoke had plenty of chances to punish Everton and were unlucky to not be ahead within the first few minutes when Ryan Shotton's long throw picked out Robert Huth, whose header was well saved by Tim Howard, and Jon Walters crashed the follow-up against the crossbar.
I doubt there were many neutrals that salivated at the prospect of this game being televised. Both teams suffer from something of a reputation problem, being characterised as champions of the long-ball and tight, organised, combative football. If that were the case then yesterday’s game would have been a tedious affair. But it isn’t and unsurprisingly the game had enough interest to satisfy the most action-obsessed of neutrals.
There were lots of chances at both ends and plenty of ‘good’ football on show. Untimely though, there was only one goal to separate the sides, a wonderful solo effort courtesy of Kevin Mirallas. Cruelly for Stoke, the move originated from their free-kick. Marc Wilson's cross was punched clear by Tim Howard and landed at the feet of Mirallas, who then outfoxed Steven Nzonzi and raced clear to clip a shot that Asmir Begovic got a hand to but could not stop. There are few players in the league who can match Mirallas for pace, and Nzonzi certainly isn’t one of them.
Mirallas’ turn in form could not have come at a better time for Everton. After some lengthy lay-offs and a period of fairly patchy performances, he’s finally looking once again like the player who thrilled the fans at the beginning of the season. Not only is he terrifying defences with his blistering pace but he’s also chipping in goals. This latter quality is something that Everton have sorely needed for a long time. For many seasons one of the team’s biggest problems has been its over-reliance on one man to find the back-of-the-net. This was something that Moyes obviously sought to redress in the summer with the acquisition of Mirallas, seeing him as someone who could relieve some of the pressure from Jelavic, something that seemed to be working early on in the season. The problem for Everton is that Mirallas has been dogged by injury for much of the campaign and so, has not been around to provide that all-important extra source of goals, something that I think has contributed to Jelavic’s poor form.
Yesterday’s win, coming on the back of the wonderful victory against City, makes for an interesting end-of-season for the club. Contrary to our position a few months back, the possibility of us enjoying Champion’s League football next season now rests in the hands of other teams. We need those above us to start dropping points. The most likely candidate to do this is obviously Chelsea, whose fixture pile-up is providing a major head-ache for Benitez. But it would also do Everton the world of good if Arsenal began to falter too.
Although much of our fate is in the hands of others, Everton can still do their bit by clocking up as many points as possible and taking a few off those teams above us that we have still to play. To do so we have to continue to employ the form and attitude that has been evident in recent games. Yesterday’s performance was hardly a vintage one but there was still a tenacity evident that had seemed absent during the early months of 2013. If we can maintain this and get a little bit of luck then there’s a good chance that this season could be one to remember.