Of course, it didn’t feel like a homecoming – this being a place where feelings about Rafael Benitez will never soften.
But the Chelsea manager is too concerned about the football details to care about sentiment, and yesterday’s were significant. This was the most important of his run of wins on domestic soil, which is now extended to six; the first against challenging opposition and the first requiring an inner resilience to see the team through.
Benitez talked last night of a spirit burnished during the club’s trip to Japan, and the players certainly look as if they were with him – Frank Lampard above all. “Sign him on,” sang the Chelsea supporters, who brandished a banner pleading “Dear Abramovich. Don’t let him go,” although evidence that the decision is not the interim manager’s to make came in the way that Benitez ducked the question of a new contract last night. For one day, though, this was a Chelsea story about the here and now; a win which takes his side within four points of Manchester City with a game in hand and which rendered talk of a two-horse race obsolete, barely before the stable door had closed on it.
Benitez agreed that it probably was the most significant result of his tenure – the first on Goodison soil since Arsenal won here in March and secured in the teeth of an adversity which Chelsea didn’t encounter when pushing Sunderland, Aston Villa and Norwich City aside.
Lampard was a deeply significant part of it. In his own characteristic fashion, Benitez curiously chose to discuss the tactical job he had given Ramires, to suppress Leighton Baines, rather than lavish praise on the 34-year-old. His goals certainly owed much to defensive failings which twice allowed him to go unmarked in the six- yard box. But Lampard revealed that knack of turning up at the right time – heading in Ramires’ cross and then stabbing in from close range, half an hour later. He was also the one who displayed the air of calm required to drag the side back into the game. Moyes was right to say that his team, who hit the woodwork three times, deserved a point. But he has also said consistently that the size of his squad could be the factor which denies them another shot at the Champions League, and this was an afternoon which demonstrated why. With Seamus Coleman, Phil Neville and Darron Gibson missing, he lacked the options to force the game back into his side’s favour.
For Benitez, there was a demonstration of why yesterday’s discussions with Demba Ba’s representatives are important. There is a change in Fernando Torres, for sure. His face has lost that pinched look of desolation. He wore Goodison mud on his back, rather than the world on his shoulders. But Sylvain Distin controlled him in a way that did not support the notion of Torres delivering a mountain of goals to take Chelsea back into the ascendancy. His contributions were fleeting: a powerful shot from the edge of the box and a neat backheel to Juan Mata, though he crept offside before taking the ball back .
The performances which lingered in the mind belonged to Everton. That infamous Benitez comment about them being a “little team” was an allusion to their lack of ambition – in the 2007 Anfield Merseyside derby – though that was not an accusation that could be levelled at them as they hurled themselves into the game. Their high-tempo football in the first 20 minutes was as irresistible as Chelsea’s was wasteful and they only needed a minute and three seconds to take the lead. Eden Hazard’s sloppy ball to Ashley Cole was collected by Pienaar, who sent Phil Jagielka away down the right flank to deliver the excellent ball which Victor Anichebe headed against Petr Cech’s right post. Pienaar finished what he had started, seizing the rebound to drive the ball home. Pienaar was the fulcrum –working up and down the pitch, backheeling the ball which Jagielka crossed for Leon Osman to force a sharp low save from Cech, then spinning off David Luiz and arcing a ball out left for Jelavic to fire an inch wide.
It was Juan Mata who finally began to build something from this early wreckage, though it was hard on Everton that they should have been dragged back to level terms just before the interval. A defence which was gradually being tested failed badly when Ramires’ cross in between Johnny Heitinga and Jagielka left Lampard unmarked to head home
Cech’s withdrawal at half time with an injury to the thigh/groin area offered Everton a renewed sense of hope, which soared when Ross Turnbull, the replacement, pushed away Osman’s shot after a one-two with Victor Anichebe, and Jelavic got in ahead of Gary Cahill to divert a Baines cross on to the bar. But Lampard pounced again after a Mata shot rebounded off Howard’s chest to his feet and, although Everton pressed to the end, Jelavic could not react rapidly enough at the death to a Baines cross.
Moyes was reluctant to credit Benitez with anything: “I don’t think Chelsea are just finding their resilience now. But something has changed.”