Verdict: Everton 2 Manchester City 0
Goals: Pienaar 36, Saha (pen) 45 for Everton.
A predictably fired-up Everton forced City on to the back foot as Roberto Mancini suffered his first defeat since taking over at Eastlands. The absence of so many players finally caught up with us and by the end the “honeymoon is over” cliche was out in force for the manager.
There was only one change to the previous starting line-up with Roque Santa Cruz coming in for Benjani. This may have been hard on the Zimbabwean, but the extra quality of Santa Cruz was required for tough opponents who were strong in the air.
City actually started the game brightly and were knocking the ball about well, despite the high tempo being set by Everton. Maybe it was this false promise that lead to Mancini’s first mistake as City manager.
Annoyingly, Santa Cruz was injured after just four minutes, and forced to hobble off. The obvious replacement was Benjani, but Mancini went for Robinho who played as a second striker. Tevez was moved forward to play as lead striker.
This proved doubly damaging. Firstly, we now had no target man to lead the line, so there was no effective option of playing high balls forward to relieve the defence. Everton were now able to push on against our midfield knowing we had to play it on the ground. In such a competitive fixture, there wasn’t the time on the ball to play our way through the Everton lines.
Secondly, we lost Tevez’s capacity to drop deep and help out the midfield by harrying opponents in our own half. This isn’t Robinho’s game, and the Everton midfield was able push right up against de Jong and Barry – two midfielders who naturally like to sit deep.
“Santa Cruz was injured after five minutes. He was our most important player.”
This interesting comment acknowledges how Santa Cruz was fundamental to our game plan, in having a target man who could lead the line.
Mancini seemed to realise his mistake as he had Benjani warming up in the first half. The second-half substitution of Robinho predictably lead to another bout of bad press for the Brazilian, but the fact is, he shouldn’t have been brought on in the first place.
If we were to have a small striker leading the line, then maybe Bellamy would have been more effective. His pace could have been utilised to try and stretch Everton. More space was needed in midfield where we were reduced to the frantic style of play that suited Moyes.
Mancini also acknowledged the debilitating effect of having so many injured players. Here, Stephen Ireland was missed as we needed a midfielder capable of taking the game to the opposition. Having him stationed in front of de Jong and Barry, and playing behind a lone striker might have enabled us to take a grip in midfield.
Whilst the score was 0-0, City’s best chance came when a flick-on by Tevez came to Robinho. There was little time and with the ball at an awkward height, the Brazilian wasn’t able to direct his volley on target. With our defence under increasing pressure, a free-kick needlessly conceded by Zabaleta proved our undoing. Pienaar struck it sweetly and it went through a slight gap in the wall, from where de Jong had broke. Given nearly got to it, but couldn’t really be faulted as the ball landed right in the corner.
Just prior to half time, City came closest to scoring when Bellamy cut in and flashed a shot round the far post. Almost immediately, Everton went upfield and won the penalty that effectively sealed the game.
Micah Richards, who had been defending heroically, had a hold of Saha’s shirt, and was spotted by the linesman. Whether Micah needed to have hold of the Frenchman’s shirt is doubtful, and if he is going to do such things in future, he needs to be a lot more subtle about them.
If we’d have gone in 1-1, it would have been interesting to see how Mancini reorganised his players for the remainder of the game. At 2-0, there never seemed any likelihood of us upsetting an Everton side putting in their best display of the season.
Robinho is being slaughtered in the media, but the fact is none of our attacking players were able to bring their ability to bear. Benjani and Wright-Phillips did ok individually when they came on. Shaun will be a likely starter on the right wing now as Petrov has run out of confidence playing on his wrong side.
Central midfield is more of a concern with talk of Barry having a groin problem. This could be a mitigating factor for his performance, but him and de Jong are not a pairing to take the game to the opposition. Mancini will have plenty to think about in this area of the field. Having Tevez drop deep to link play, or Ireland do the same job from midfield is the most likely solution. We were clearly undermanned at Goodison.
It was ironic to see Fellaini giving an impression of Vieira in his prime. We needed a similar performance from the original, but whether he still has the legs to do it remains to be seen. The present Vieira is likely to sit as deep as de Jong and Barry.
The game was similar to the defeat at Spurs where we took a hammering that proved the final failing for Hughes. It’s to early to condemn Mancini in the same way as he should be allowed a little time to better understand the players at his disposal, and to acclimatise to the rigours of the Premier League.