By the end, it really was a case of Everton being in a “gunfight armed with a knife”, as David Moyes once described the challenge of this fixture, and Joe Hart could allow a sense of relief to wash over him. It was written on his face as he headed for the tunnel throwing out bear-hugs.
You imagine Roy Hodgson must have felt like offering something similar to Brian Marwood, the head of Manchester City’s academy, beside him in the directors’ box. Because if the afternoon had finished as it had started, this international week would have been dominated by further inquisitions on a goalkeeper who is travelling through his roughest patch in football.
The intensity of that journey increases tenfold amid the scrutiny of days like these. “It’s not fair, always analysing what Joe Hart does,” Manuel Pellegrini, the Manchester City manager declared after the game, but time stood still as Romelu Lukaku raced in on him and scored his seventh goal in his last six games, across this season and last.
“Always the whole team is responsible for the goal. It is everyone’s job,” Pellegrini said of Everton’s opener. Indeed, Joleon Lescott – flummoxed by the timing of Ross Barkley’s high ball from Everton’s half, then undone by Lukaku’s pace – as well as Aleksandar Kolarov, who didn’t cover and Vincent Kompany, who played Lukaku onside, were culpable. But a world class keeper, like the Hart of City’s title pomp two seasons back, would have made that save.
Thereafter the 26-year-old smothered, punched and collected without great incident, though he and Hodgson know that this did not represent anything so clear cut as redemption. An anxious six days lie ahead before England’s match with Montengro on Friday.
Pellegrini compounded the suspense last night with his uncertain answer to whether Stevan Jovetic – one of only two top- class players possessed by the Montenegrins – will be fit to play after picking up a knock on Tuesday.
As Pellegrini observed, Lukaku’s goal was ultimately an insignificance, though Roberto Martinez’s side were certainly worthy of it during a first period in which they played confident football in front of City. Had Everton’s Spanish manager been able to parade Gareth Barry, the player he has loaned from City, the tide might not have turned so completely in a second half during which the spirit of playing sin miedo was sadly extinguished.
It was an absorbing contest while equilibrium lasted and City also delivered plenty. No-one in Martinez’s ranks could deal with the returning David Silva, whose delicate intersecting pass was integral to a rapid equaliser.
It propelled a short Fernandinho free kick into the path of Yaya Touré, who drifted laconically through the left side of Everton’s box and allowed Alvaro Negredo to slide home. Negredo is beginning to look like a seriously good acquisition.
Pellegrini’s defence began falling apart, in many ways. The distraught state Kompany was in when he left the field on half an hour, after the latest in a pattern of injuries, suggested that he feels he might be out for an extended time, again. This was an unspecified muscular problem.
It was also game in which the referee, Jon Moss, became all-too prominent; issuing cards like confetti, struggling to keep up with the pace of the game, missing Matija Nastasic’s push on Steven Naismith in the City area and contributing to both of the City goals to come.
The second – converted from an acute angle by a generally indifferent Sergio Aguro after Negredo slid a ball into his path – came while the Everton defence were distracted by a head-to head between the Spanish striker and Seamus Coleman, incensed by what the defender felt was a dive. Moss was slow to deal with the altercation.
The penalty which wrapped matters up was soft. Coleman barely impeded Pablo Zabaleta as he ran into the box, but a kick was awarded. Aguero took it, his effort rebounding from the post onto the back of Tim Howard’s head and in.
Martinez admitted that his players had lost their customary patience and been prone to concede possession because of this, though suggested that Moss may have contributed to the effect. “He didn’t allow us to compete eye to eye,” he said. “It could have been a fantastic game. He killed the game.”
Pellegrini responded curtly to say that “I never talk about the referees, but I am absolutely sure that the difference between the teams today was not the referee.” Neither was Joe Hart. And for that, he and the English nation could give thanks.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany (Nastasic 34), Lescott, Kolarov (Clichy, 58); Fernandino, Touré; Milner, Aguero (Nasri, 79), Silva; Negredo.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Distin, Jagielka, Baines; McCarthy, Osman (Gibson, 62); Mirallis (Deulofeu, 62), Barkley, Naismith; Lukaku (Koné, 83).
Referee: Jonathan Moss.
Man of the match: Negredo (Manchester City)
Match rating: 7/10