Fulham 1 Everton 3 match report: Roberto Martinez makes right changes to set up Toffees for Arsenal showdown

Fifth-placed Everton take on Arsenal in fourth next Sunday

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The Independent Football

Good managers change games with their substitutions and that is precisely what Roberto Martinez did at Craven Cottage on Sunday to keep Everton challenging for fourth place in the Premier League and a Champions League place.

His team were poor in the first half, outfought by a Fulham side engaged in a seemingly futile struggle to stay up. Everton at half time were not very good value for 0-0, so Martinez withdrew Ross Barkley, who had been struggling with a calf injury, for Steven Naismith. Soon enough Naismith helped put Everton ahead.

Fulham equalised, so Martinez threw on Aiden McGeady, whose first intervention was to set up Kevin Mirallas – another substitute – for Everton’s second goal. Near the end Naismith scored the third.

This was Everton’s third game in eight days and tiredness was understandable. It could have cost them the three points and disrupted their push up the table, but thanks to the depth of their squad, and Martinez’s use of it, it did not. “The performance at Newcastle [where Everton won 3-0 in midweek] took a lot out of us, with the travelling,” he said. “And sometimes it is just the mental fatigue. We needed fresh legs.”

Before the break Everton were slow and sloppy, unable to impose themselves on the opposition. Fulham played a basic game very well, keeping their shape, working hard without the ball and pinning back Everton’s full-backs. Moussa Dembélé, the 17-year-old making his first start, was enterprising and energetic up front and Fulham had enough chances to go in front. Pajtim Kasami headed wide before Tim Howard had to save from Kieran Richardson, Lewis Holtby and, in the last minute of the first half, Dembélé.

Fulham’s problem was that they failed to exploit their superiority. “It was our best game until now,” their manager Felix Magath said. “We did not play like a relegated team.” He was right, but neither did they do enough to win and the four victories he is targeting for survival must come from just six matches. Magath promised that he will still be in charge next season if Fulham are relegated and it is approaching certainty that they will be.

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Martinez was far more upbeat, and understandably so. His changes produced a far improved second-half performance that deserved to win the game. Naismith helped put them ahead just five minutes after the re-start, volleying from 20 yards and seeing the ball ricochet off William Kvist and David Stockdale on its way into the net.

Naismith had given Everton far more energy, playing just off Romelu Lukaku, and his clever through pass to Leighton Baines should have produced more than something that was neither a good cross nor a shot. Mirallas was next on but it was a Fulham substitute who scored the next goal.

Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale opens the scoring with an own goal

Ashkan Dejagah had just replaced Richardson when he took the ball on the left wing and cut inside past Seamus Coleman. James McCarthy lost his footing at the worst moment and Dejagah took on the shot, arrowing it past Howard into the near top corner. Briefly inspired, Fulham had chances to go ahead, Howard having to save with his feet from Kasami and Johnny Heitinga.

Fulham, though, could not take their chances and it  was Martinez’s final substitute who turned the game. With 13 minutes left, McGeady replaced Leon Osman; with his first intervention he played a perfect pass through to Mirallas, running in behind. Mirallas, too quick for Dejagah, finished into the bottom corner.

Everton were comfortable seeing out the win but had time, with three minutes left, to score a third. Baines collected a loose ball on the edge of the box, arriving from an offside position, and squared to Naismith for a simple finish. The Scottish striker nearly scored again in added time, taking the ball just inside Fulham’s half, running through and hitting the base of the post from 20 yards.

That would have been quite something but the win itself was pleasure enough for Martinez, showing the depth of options he has available. “The compliment I can pay is that I can select an 11 from our squad,” he said, “and be confident that we can play the way I want to play, and show the concepts that we have as a team.”

Martinez knows he will need the whole squad for their final seven games of the season, which could provide a perfect finish. “We embrace the challenge,” he said. “We feel that we have a real advantage playing at home and we’ve got Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Crystal Palace. They are as difficult as it gets but we feel that if we can be perfect in what we do we’ve got a great chance of getting points.”

While Fulham’s last matches will, most likely, be a procession in the wrong direction, Everton could finish thrillingly. Martinez knows about dramatic endings, having saved Wigan Athletic twice in the final week of the season, and could inspire something just as meaningful this year. If his side beat Arsenal on Sunday, they will be one point behind them with a game in hand.

“Spurs are still fighting and Manchester United won’t give up fighting,” he said. “Mathematically, you have still got seven teams fighting for the four positions, so I do think it will go down to the end. Football miracles happen.”