With just 180 minutes of football left to avoid what would be their first relegation in 72 years, Everton are again sweating on the fitness of their number nine, Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Manager Sean Dyche stated afterwards that he himself had taken the decision to take off his centre-forward at half-time as a precaution because of a “tight groin” so Blues will be praying that the player is now fit enough to play against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bournemouth. Although the 26-year-old has yet to score from open play since his return to fitness at Crystal Palace on April 22, the extra dimension he brings to Everton’s attack is palpable and they look a far more potent outfit with him in the side.
Just one more goal from Calvert-Lewin during the run-in could make the difference to keeping the Blues up but in contrast, his opposite number Erling Haaland has been scoring for fun this season. It didn’t go unnoticed that the Norwegian had been through one of his quieter games of the campaign in the reverse fixture at the Etihad back on New Year’s Eve when he seemed to be somewhat rattled by the physicality of Everton’s defenders.
Haaland still scored though, just as he did here despite hardly touching the ball throughout the first half. Joe Royle, who also played centre-forward for both these clubs – before also managing the pair – watched on but in many respects this super-human goal machine is the closest we’ve seen since the man whose statue he passed in the team bus on the way out of Goodison Park, Dixie Dean.
It was Dean’s 60-goal haul of course that inspired the Blues to their third League Championship back in 1928. Haaland’s latest bullet header – in front of the Gwladys Street – helps move Manchester City to within touching distance of their latest title success, one that will put them poignantly on nine and level with Everton.
Left-back… in the changing rooms
Everton’s chronic lack of attacking options is well-documented and despite their five-goal blitz at Brighton last time out, it’s obvious were the most-serious deficiencies in a team who has scored just 32 goals in the Premier League all season lie but the Blues’ paucity of options at left-back is still costing them dearly.
In January last year, Goodison Park chiefs decided to plough a large chunk of the £25million transfer fee they were poised to receive from Aston Villa for Lucas Digne into recruiting Vitalii Mykolenko from Dynamo Kyiv. Over the 18 months since, the Ukraine international had to learn to ply his trade in the Premier League in hugely testing circumstances but on the whole he’s remained first choice due to a lack of natural alternatives.
Like many within the Blues side, Mykolenko enjoyed one of his most-impressive displays of recent times at the Amex Stadium but after suffering an untimely injury a day before this contest, Dyche opted to play Mason Holgate out of position in his place. Realistically, other than moving Nathan Patterson over to the opposite flank – a position he occupied on several occasions for Rangers – which would have meant making a couple of changes to the team’s shape, he had few alternatives.
Ben Godfrey, who like Holgate is predominantly right-footed, had previously occupied the role until he was hooked on a chastening day at Manchester United on April 8 but he was not in the squad. Everton’s Frankenstein’s Monster of a squad, cobbled together by a series of different managers with wildly varying football philosophies remains significantly unbalanced with a surfeit of centre-backs but no recognised left-back currently fit as on-loan Ruben Vinagre, who hasn’t featured in the Premier League since August, also sidelined.
Other opponents might not be able to match Manchester City’s quality but the way that Holgate was targeted here with his lack of familiarity in the role exploited will remain a concern for the Blues’ two remaining games as they look to salvage their Premier League status.
Knife to a gunfight
Back when he was Everton manager, the long-serving David Moyes used to compare trying to compete with Manchester City’s riches as being akin to taking a knife to a gunfight… at least back then the Blues were up for the battle.
While it’s true that they couldn’t match their regional rivals’ petrodollar-fuelled spending in the transfer market, for a time between 2008-11, Everton won seven out of eight head-to-heads between the club and during one of these reversals, Moyes once frustrated opposite number Roberto Mancini so much, the Manchester City manager let his ‘Italian gentleman’ mask slip and pushed him in an unseemly touchline spat. Even on Pep Guardiola’s first visit to Goodison Park in 2017, Ronald Koeman’s Blues thrashed him 4-0.
Since then it’s been increasingly painful for Everton in this fixture though. Demarai Gray’s spectacular equaliser on New Year’s Eve prevented an 11th straight victory for City but this was their seventh consecutive victory at Goodison Park in all competitions to create a new record in their own right having matched a sequence achieved by Portsmouth from between 1948-56. Dyche himself has now won just one of his 18 meetings as a manager against them so unfortunately there was a predictable feeling to how all this unfolded.
This game took place on the anniversary of Everton’s 1966 FA Cup final win over Sheffield Wednesday – when Harry Catterick’s side became the first side to come from 2-0 down to lift the trophy – but with his own team trailing by the same deficit here at the break, Dyche chose to look at damage limitation and saving Calvert-Lewin for further battles ahead. While the home sections of the stadium inevitably thinned out towards the ends after City had added a third goal, what felt different here at least to Newcastle United was that those Evertonians who remained inside Goodison Park, continued to back their team’s efforts and it’s to be hoped that remains the case as they now enter one of the most-crucial fortnights in the club’s history.
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