A last minute Anthony Martial strike dumped Everton out of the FA Cup in a dramatic semi-final at Wembley.
Manchester United took the lead through former Blue Marouane Fellaini as the Reds dominated the first half.
But a resurgent Everton restored parity in the 75th minute through a Chris Smalling own-goal. Moments before, Romelu Lukaku missed the chance to level matters from the spot; David de Gea equal to his strike with an inspired full-stretch save.
Despite having United on the ropes for most of the second 45 Everton couldn’t force extra-time, as Martial’s quick one-two in injury-time saw him cut through Everton’s defence and slot coolly past Joel Robles.
Some pride restored
After a humiliating 4-0 derby defeat on Wednesday, the very least Evertonians deserved on Saturday was an improvement in effort and desire from the players.
Liverpool were met with little resistance in their Anfield romp, so it was important that fans making their way to Wembley saw their team stand up and take the game to a capable but hardly terrifying United side.
It took Martinez’s men till half-time to start re-paying fans who’d made the 400+mile round trip, after a lifeless 45 minutes in which United barely had to break sweat in order to take the lead.
But the second half response had everything -and all- Evertonians ever ask of their players when they cross the white line: heart, passion, effort, team work and the desire to make their supporters proud.
While the quality in the final third didn’t always reach the heights we saw earlier this season, the danger-men in Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu when he came on did enough to get Everton on level terms.
Of course there was fortune at play in the equaliser; if Smalling only had a nervous system that correctly synced his brain with his legs, he might have cleared the ball with his left instead of converting past his own keeper.
But Everton’s midfield found Deulofeu, and Deulofeu found the space on more than a few occasions. When he got his head up early enough to put the ball in the 6 yard box, Everton got their reward.
Blues turn in the performance but fall short, again
The surging runs and free-flowing counter attacks in the second half at Wembley were reminiscent of Everton at their brilliant best earlier in the season. Think back to Southampton, Bournemouth and Norwich away; a firm and resilient back four (until the latter stages of those games) backing up a forward line who countered with blistering speed, decisive passing and lethal finishing.
It might not quite have got to those heights, but the endeavour from the players was plain to see and United looked exposed and unable to cope with it for long periods of the half.
Unfortunately the resistance couldn’t hold. Phil Jagielka put in a wonderful performance considering he’d been rushed back from a hamstring injury in order to allay Everton’s injury crisis (aggravated by Ramiro Funes Mori’s suspension). Even with an awkward looking Mohammed Besic deputising at right-back, Everton’s back four looked markedly more stable than it has for most of the season.
Ironic then in a sense that it was Jagielka who couldn’t clear the ball before Ander Herrera managed to poke it into the path of Martial in the 92nd minute. Would a fully fit Jagielka have made it to the ball a little bit earlier? Would he have had more strength to hold off Herrera to come away with the ball? Did tired legs stop him putting his foot clean through it?
Late goals have cost Blues all season, and Martinez will pay the price
Such is the life of an Evertonian that we find ourselves asking these questions so often in the wreckage of another semi-final defeat (that’s 13 FA Cup semi final defeats now, and only United and Arsenal have appeared in more last-four ties). For Everton, coming so close and falling at the final hurdle has been a club trademark.
And conceding decisive late goals has been a habit of Roberto Martinez’s Everton this season. We don’t really need reminding of the heartbreak sustained in the last minute of games with Bournemouth, Stoke City, Chelsea and West Ham. But what else did three of those results and subsequent disappointments have in common? The home clash with the Potters aside, Everton threw away a 2-0 lead in each of those games.
It all points to the absence of a winning mentality. And while Martinez may be able to point to Saturday’s FA Cup defeat as a cruel hard luck story -having rallied as the better side in the second half- such an excuse won’t stick with the board in light of a season of familiar woes.
While the end result of anger, frustration and bitter disappointment is as ever, so difficult to accept, at the very least we saw an Everton side with their tails up, trying desperately to win the game instead of hanging on. For Martinez, such a footnote will not save his job.