When Arsène Wenger said he hoped Everton might slip up in an increasingly frenzied race for the Champions League, the Arsenal manager could not imagine they would fall like this. The most probable scenario seemed to be that Crystal Palace, like Sunderland had done on Boxing Day, would snatch a goal and cling on to it. Nobody really imagined Tony Pulis would take Crystal Palace to the brink of Premier League survival in a five-goal thriller.
Once more Arsenal are likely to scrape into the gold-lined vaults of the Champions League and, with fixtures against the two Manchester clubs to come, this is likely to be another nearly season at Everton. This may be a year in which Liverpool break the Premier League’s mould but in the other corner of Merseyside and in north London the pattern remains the same.
At Cardiff, Pulis had supposedly and fancifully benefited from a leaked team sheet; here he was the beneficiary of an oddly chosen team. Since Roberto Martinez had radically altered it before the match was an hour old, it was admission by the Everton manager that he had chosen the wrong one.
Against Chelsea at Selhurst Park and for an hour at Manchester City, Crystal Palace had proved they could hold out and Martinez’s plan seemed to be to attack them with pace and power, which meant Ross Barkley as an unconvincing holding midfielder with Aiden McGeady and Gerard Deulofeu driving in from the wings.
It was not until the last two had been replaced by Leon Osman and Steven Naismith that Everton began to function properly. When Naismith bundled in a Kevin Mirallas cross that Leighton Baines had headed into his path and Osman forced Julian Speroni to tip a vicious shot on to the top of the crossbar, it appeared Palace might be broken.
Instead, the sight of Cameron Jerome scoring Palace’s third put Goodison in mind of every other time they had choked when set for greater things – Liverpool at Wembley in 2012, Villarreal in the Champions League and against Martinez’s Wigan in last year’s FA Cup quarter-final. Then a shot from Barkley deflected off Joel Ward and Mirallas intercepted the ball and took it round Speroni. Hope, cold and cruel, began to flicker. By the end a side built around a pure, passing game was hurling balls into the box but any side managed by Pulis knows how to defend a long throw with eyes firmly shut.
This game, like the one at Manchester City, had been a victim of the February storms that sent roof tiles from the nearby Wilmslow Hotel clattering on to Goodison Road. Now, the air was still, warm and almost balmy, the kind of spring weather that has footballers thinking about holidays and contracts.
Those who crammed the narrow redbrick streets around the stadium would have come to this game wondering about travel; whether if Everton made it to the Champions League they could afford journeys to Barcelona, Milan or Munich.
However, football is always getting ahead of itself, ticking off the victories before kick-off, and Everton’s last tilt at the Champions League had finished before it had properly begun, eliminated in the qualifiers by a Villarreal side directed by Manuel Pellegrini. Most of the night was a reminder that this time they might not get that far.
It was something of an irony that Martinez’s Everton, whose success has been built around cleverly chosen loan players, should have been undone by a borrowed footballer.
“Jason Puncheon, he scores every week” sang those in the Bullens Road Stand who had made the tortuous journey from south London to Merseyside. If he did, Southampton would never have loaned him out but this was his fourth goal in three games.
It was made by the power and athleticism of Yannick Bolasie, who was born in Lyons, represents the Democratic Republic of Congo and whose journey has taken in playing for Hillingdon Borough and in a Malta.
To have ended up in the Premier League would have taken a considerable amount of hunger and desire and Bolasie showed both in muscling past Baines and then delivering a cross that was meant for the lurking Jerome. Tim Howard beat the striker to the ball but pushed it out only as far as Marouane Chamakh who, with a little cushioned pass delivered with the side of his boot, teed it up for Puncheon’s drive into the corner of the net.
Three minutes after the interval, Bolasie created Palace’s second, although this one was far more routine, a corner that Scott Dann, charging in, headed down into the ground and from there into the roof of Howard’s goal. In between, Bolasie had rifled a shot against the foot of the post.
Perhaps realising the prize at stake, Goodison had been unusually anxious considering Everton had won their last eight matches and the opposition’s main threat was that Palace would hold out for a goalless draw. By the time of Jerome’s third for Palace, every stand was, mentally at least, chain smoking. Only when Naismith broke through did the stadium clear its throat and start to sing as if it believed.
Man of the match Bolasie.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands).
Race for fourth: Remaining games
Sunday Hull (a)
28 Apr Newcastle (h)
4 May West Bromwich (h)
11 May Norwich (a)
Saturday Manchester Utd (h)
26 Apr Southampton (a)
3 May Manchester City (h)
11 May Hull (a)Reuse content