It’s 82 years since an Everton team last won its first five games of the season and yet here Carlo Ancelotti’s improved outfit sit, on top of the Premier League table for another night at least and starting to fulfil the promise and pre-season optimism engendered by those three close-season signings. If they can rack up a sixth straight win in all competitions on Wednesday they will find themselves in the quarter finals of the League Cup; match the achievement of the 1938-39 edition of the Toffees by winning their first six in the League and they will not only have notched a first Merseyside derby win in a decade, they will also surely still be sitting atop the table with that 100% record intact.
Such things were flights of fancy just a few weeks ago when Everton sleepwalked their way through the last few matches of 2019-20 and finished 12th. As has been seen, the addition of Abdoulaye Doucouré, Allan and James Rodriguez have transformed the side into a team with all-round abilities; capable of the finesse with which they carved out their opener this afternoon and the resilience to keep Crystal Palace at bay in the second half despite facing a succession of dead-ball situations which were, truth be told, the only time Roy Hodgson’s men looked all that threatening.
The decision for the penalty that ultimately proved to be the difference in terms of the scoreline has dominated the post-match discussion among pundits but there is no question that the better team won on the day and that Everton were deserving of the points.
Palace may have hustled and harried in spells, making for as difficult and occasionally nervy a second-half as Everton will have expected against a physical and uncompromising side but they managed just one shot on target all game. Tellingly, Wilfried Zaha was kept very quiet on the day and it marked the first time in four seasons that the highly-regarded winger has failed to dribble around an opponent at Selhurst Park.
Seamus Coleman, Yerry Mina and Michael Keane combined to snuff out the winger’s threat and on the one occasion Zaha did burst into space heading for Jordan Pickford’s goal, he was thwarted by magnificent covering by Abdoulaye Doucouré 10 minutes into the second half.
Indeed, this was a collective effort where no one could claim to have had a complete game but all played their part in the kind of gritty encounter played in changeable conditions that isn’t made for 10-out-of-10 displays. Importantly, though, no one allowed themselves to be dragged down by individual lapses and as a unit they were hard to break down and resilient when they needed to be.
Doucouré’s passing was sloppy at times and two ill-advised balls inside that went straight to Palace players in the first half went unpunished; Mina and Allan were guilty of clumsy fouls that put the defence under unnecessary pressure from free-kicks in the second half; and there will be questions asked of the defending for the goal that the hosts did score but none of it mattered in the final reckoning. Good teams find a way to win difficult matches.
As expected, Ancelotti restored his first-choice line-up following the changes he made in midweek against Fleetwood Town and while the “Blues”, playing in their new amber away kit for the first time, initially found it difficult to play their way through Palace’s lines, they did have the first chance of the game in the ninth minute.
Doucouré was foiled from close range in that instance by Vicente Guaita when the ball bobbled up and he tried to force it in from the angle but a minute later, the visitors made the breakthrough with a move that illustrated perfectly the match-winning talents that Rodriguez brings to the team.
Coleman had collected a sweeping cross-field pass from André Gomes and handed it off to Doucouré who in turn found James who pinged a beautiful first-time reverse pass into the area to meet the Irishman’s run and his simple square ball across the six-yard box was tucked away by Dominic Calvert-Lewin via the goalkeeper.
It was the striker’s fifth goal of the new campaign and one that means he is already a third of the way to matching last season’s tally in all competitions.
Nothing about playing Palace on their own turf is easy but Everton made it more difficult for themselves than it needed to be by conceding a soft goal from a corner a quarter of an hour later. Andros Townsend had wasted an earlier corner by sending it sailing over everyone and out for a goal kick; this time his delivery found Cheikhou Kouyaté at the back post who out-jumped between Keane and Richarlison and planted a header past Pickford to make it 1-1.
A quick counter-attack from another corner almost yielded a second goal but Richarlison was closed down by covering defenders and a check by Video Assistant Referee, Anthony Taylor, quashed appeals for a penalty for handball against Joel Ward on the half-hour mark.
The defender wasn’t so fortunate 10 minutes later. This time, Lucas Digne’s downward header looking for Richarlison in the box struck Ward on the hand and Taylor deemed his arm to have been in an unnatural position and, after a Palace attack had been repelled at the other end, a penalty was eventually awarded to Everton. Richarlison stepped up and confidently banged his spot-kick into the top corner to restore the Toffees’ lead.
A tame direct free-kick by Rodriguez was the last action of the half but the second began with the home side pressing forward from the off and winning a couple of free-kicks that were comfortably dealt with before James came close to weighing in with another assist.
The former Real man swung in a dangerous corner that found Calvert-Lewin stealing in ahead of his man but his finish lacked conviction and he could only prod the ball wide from a central position in front of goal. The striker rose to meet another corner from the same side shortly afterwards but he and Keane got in each other’s way and ended up heading each other as much as the ball.
Palace had a couple of moments as they stepped up the pressure in the middle part of the second half. Jordan Ayew caused a brief panic when his cross deflected off Coleman and flashed across Pickford’s goal and Kouyaté planted another header off a set-piece the wrong side of the post but the longer the game wore on, the more assured Everton became and they largely stifled any attempts Palace made to bludgeon their way back to parity.
Gylfi Sigurdsson came on for Gomes and slotted in seamlessly, keeping the ball and laying it off efficiently in midfield and Tom Davies was thrown on in the 90th minute as the last time-consuming substitute in place of Richarlison. In between, the more questionable introduction of Alex Iwobi for the tiring Rodriguez resulted in the Nigerian gifting the ball to the opposition on more occasions than was comfortable but Hodgson’s side weren’t able to capitalise.
In terms of the stand-out players on the day, it’s hard to look past the front two who grabbed the goals and put in magnificent shifts leading the line. Again, as a collective the midfield and back line were very good overall, with Everton’s blend of silk and steel evident in players like Gomes who relished the physical battle whilst also being able to spread the play and move the ball intelligently when space allows.
James, meanwhile, glided through this game with all of his class, injecting urgency with his passing all while barely breaking a sweat – he didn’t need to; often he makes the game look effortless. Calvert-Lewin had a difficult task against a big defence but worked his socks off from start to finish and Richarlison was his combative, unrelenting self wide on the left.
Three successive home games now provide Everton with a real chance to push on and not rest on this terrific start to the campaign. West Ham will come to Goodison with plenty to prove, Brighton have demonstrated already that they have plenty in their locker with which to hurt teams and the derby on 17th October will be the acid test for Ancelotti’s transformed team. Onward and upwards, Blues!
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