One of Roberto Martinez’s favourite adjectives when talking about his young footballers is “arrogant”. By arrogant the Everton manager does not mean that his team is sodden with overconfidence but that they are not afraid of their own ability.
This was an arrogant display by a team that, if it can be kept together, might be one of the best that the Goodison Park faithful have seen but which went into this semi-final having won only three games at home – and two of those were against Aston Villa and Sunderland.
You could see it in the way Muhamed Besic tracked down and tackled Yaya Touré, leaving Manchester City’s captain on his knees and the crowd on their feet. You could see it in the manner in which Ross Barkley swept through on goal and the self-belief that saw them recover from Jesus Navas’s equaliser within minutes.
Given that Everton have won none of their last six games at the Etihad Stadium, the 2-1 win at Goodison last night may not be enough to take them to their third League Cup final, but it was still an endorsement of Martinez’s values.
When the Spaniard oversaw his greatest single achievement – his Wigan side’s victory over Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final – his players all commented that, despite the vast disparity in resources between the two teams, the result did not come as a complete shock.
If he can instil that kind of self-belief in these players, Everton in the Champions League may be more than just talk.
The last time Manchester City had gone to Goodison, Ramiro Funes Mori, who scored the opening goal last night, had watched from the stands amid a good deal of suspicion. The feeling was that John Stones was being sacrificed on the altar of Chelsea’s money and the man from River Plate would be the sop to the supporters.
Stones did not leave and keeping Sergio Aguero at bay was another endorsement of his ability. It may have been a semi-final but for Stones it would have been much less tense than the second round of the competition in August. Everton had been drawn at Barnsley, his first and hometown club, and after a month’s worth of pressure from Chelsea, had finally handed in a transfer request.
Stones, like the rest of Martinez’s team, was horribly erratic at Oakwell. Everton were 3-1 down at one point and the lad whom his manager regularly describes as “the best young centre-half in Europe” had been at fault for all three.
Everton, to their own and his relief, scored four more goals, the transfer window slammed shut and Stones avoided what might have been a catastrophic move to a Chelsea side that was to disintegrate completely and unexpectedly.
Stones displayed his “arrogance” in the final moments of last Sunday’s draw against Tottenham when, rather than hoof the ball clear, he performed a series of Cruyff turns in his own six-yard box.
Jamie Carragher, a very different kind of defender who was watching from the Sky Sports studio, was horrified to see those kinds of risks being taken so close to goal.
Martinez, however, would have been quietly delighted. In his last game at Goodison, Stones had given away a soft last-minute penalty that had allowed Stoke an improbable 4-3 victory. It was proof that the 21-year-old Yorkshireman’s confidence in his own considerable ability had not been damaged.
Here, he and Funes Mori would be taking care of Aguero. In the eyes of their captain, Phil Jagielka, the Argentine striker’s strengths – his speed, his low centre of gravity and the way he can slip from his marker’s shoulder – make him among the most difficult of all centre-forwards to mark.
There are hints of Bobby Moore – and he has Moore’s slim build when he was made England captain in 1963 – in the way Stones takes the ball out but there is grit too.
In the second half, as Manchester City hammered forward, he slid through to dispossess Kevin De Bruyne, who this season has been as dangerous and more available than Aguero, punched the air and shouted encouragement.
If Stones remains at Everton, the question will be when and not if he captains the side.
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