A superb cross from Gylfi Sigurdsson and equally excellent header from Richarlison saw the Blues back to winning ways, and avenging the home loss to Sheffield United earlier in the season.
The penultimate game of the season saw the Blues cross the Pennines to the Steel City and a match-up with the surprise package of this interrupted campaign – Chris Wilder and his Sheffield United.
The Blades have been something of a revelation this season in the Premier League, as simply concentrating on Premier League survival was apparently never considered and playing without fear, they still harbour hopes of securing European football and if they achieve that, Wilder should be up for Manager of the Year.
The final home game of the season for the Blades and there was no sentimental first team place for Phil Jagielka against his old club as manager Chris Wilder named his side: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Baldock, Berge, Norwood (c), Osborn, Stevens, McBurnie and McGoldrick. Jagielka was however listed amongst the Blades substitutes.
After less than inspiring and sparkling performances in our last four outings, Carlo Ancelotti and Everton have been drawing less than complimentary media coverage and some of the social media comments have been nothing short of acidic with many of the players in the firing line and some even doubting some of the decision making by the manager.
Hampered by injuries from even before Project Restart got under way, in his pre-match press conference Ancelotti confirmed that, as half expected, Mason Holgate, Yerry Mina and Fabian Delph would all miss the final two games. For Holgate especially, it’s a cruel blow as the young defender has had an excellent season.
Ancelotti was also quick to advise that speculation about the future of Moise Kean was pointless, “It is a possibility he can start [against Sheffield United] but the idea we have on him doesn’t change, and he will be our player next season. He has learned about the environment we have here in this club and developed his relationship with his teammates. He is really young, a player with potential and a lot of quality. It is true he didn’t play a lot but he had really strong competition up front. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison did really well. In the last two games he will have more opportunity but we have to plan for next season [with a view] to him having more opportunities to play.”
Turning his attention to the Bramall Lane encounter, the manager noted, “We are going to play a team doing really well in this period, they beat Tottenham, Chelsea and Wolves at home, they play with intensity and are really aggressive. Sheffield United… are not only a physical team, they have a clear idea in attack and defence. It is clear they have trained to play together. What we want [from our final two games] is points, it will be important to show good football and play with fighting spirit, nothing more.”
And in a clear look to the summer and to next season he remarked, “Everyone in the Club has a clear idea how to improve the squad. We don’t have to consider how the big is the jump [to compete at the league’s top end next season]. We have to jump, we have to move forward, we have to improve. We have to be better next season.”
He duly named his starting eleven: Pickford, Sidibe, Keane, Branthwaite, Digne, Walcott, Davies, Gomes, Sigurdsson (c), Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin. On the substitutes bench were: Stekelenburg, Virginia, Coleman, Baines, Baningime, Bernard, Gordon, Iwobi and youthful goalscoring sensation Ellis Simms with no place for Moise Kean.
On a pleasant, sunny, south Yorkshire evening, our referee was Stuart Attwell.
Richarlison went down inside the opening 90 seconds after taking a knock to his right ankle, and with the home side biting into early tackles, Lucas Digne got a heavy whack from McBurnie who was rather lucky not to see a yellow card for the challenge.
Everton started tentatively with the back four seemingly content to pass it around amongst themselves and using Pickford as the outlet avenue while Sheffield looked hungry and pressed forward at every opportunity.
Richarlison, tracking back, conceded the games first corner that saw Keane head clear and Pickford claim the second cross under no pressure. Pickford stretched to punch a floated free kick for a second United corner that sailed through the Blues six-yard area and out for a goal kick.
Just before the twenty minute mark, a nice Everton passing move saw Walcott and Sigurdsson combine for the Icelander to play Walcott in down the right channel to beat the defender only for his cross to be too far in front of Richarlison. Gomes with an interception and chase down the right touchline saw him fire a long ball for DCL that the former Blades player couldn’t control and Henderson mopped up but, the Blues were beginning to settle and building steadily from the back was earning them a foothold in the game.
Berge appeared to get away with a handball in the Everton area and Digne took no chances in conceding a third corner that was easily cleared. Osborn manhandling Walcott saw the Blues win a free kick and complain about the somewhat agricultural mode of tackling employed by the home side. On 33 minutes, Tom Davies saw the first yellow card for a foul on McBurnie ahead of Digne heading the ball away for another Blades corner that again came to nothing.
Sidibe to DCL and he laid the ball into the path of Sigurdsson to try and get Richarlison in on the left but, he was closed down quickly and the promising move broke down. Pickford took no chances in stretching to tip away a cross from Basham, the same player drawing a good defensive header from Keane with his next cross from the right.
Three minutes before the interval, Richarlison won the Blues first corner, Henderson punching the Sigurdsson cross from the left only as far as Walcott and his cross from the right found DCL at the back post and he was unlucky to see his header came back off the woodwork. Without any doubt, the best chance for either side in a combative but, largely uninspiring first half. Sidibe got a deflection on a shot from Osborn and the ball looped nicely for Pickford to claim.
In added-on time Norwood saw yellow despite claiming his innocence for a challenge on Richarlison, the resulting free kick came to nothing and the referee blew for the break.
Half Time: 0-0
No changes by either manager for the second half and an early free kick saw the Blues open the scoring as a perfectly flighted free kick from Sigurdsson found the head of Richarlison and his terrific header bulged the corner of the net despite Henderson getting a fingertip to it.
Gomes found Walcott and his cross for DCL was intercepted and cleared in a hurry by Henderson as Sigurdsson closed in, a bright start by the Blues had caught the home side cold before Basham got forward on the right and Branthwaite stood firm to block a shot from McGoldrick.
Digne and Baldock exchanged angry words after the Sheffield player appeared to tread on the Blues defenders leg, referee Attwell calming things down without resorting to yellow cards. Basham was causing problems down the left side of the Everton defence, another cross seeing Keane get a necessary touch to allow Pickford to gather the loose ball.
DCL did well to get away from Egan only for the defender to get a telling touch on his shot that allowed Henderson to parry the deflected shot. The game was now much more open and a Sheffield raid, again down the right, saw Keane defend well to win a goal kick.
Billy Sharp and Fleck replaced Osborn and McBurnie on the hour mark in the games first change of personnel.
The evening sunshine was casting long shadows onto the pitch and facing the sun, Jordan Pickford wisely had donned a baseball cap. The goal had certainly livened things up, both teams clearly warming to the task after a rather bland first half. Gomes to Walcott and his cutback cross couldn’t find a blue shirt, and the home side made a third change following the second drinks break, Lundstram replacing Norwood.
Fleck down the left swung a cross to the back post where Digne was alert to concede a corner that Pickford managed to force behind under pressure from Sharp, adjudged to have fouled the Everton ‘keeper.
Into the final quarter of an hour and the expected late surge by the home side began but, Everton were defending well with Keane again having a good game and Branthwaite looking equally calm on his first full start. Tom Davies with a good tackle inside the area conceded a corner but again, it was easily cleared by the Blues defence. Fleck with a through ball for Sharp saw the veteran forward unable to control it and it ran nicely through to Pickford.
DCL was booked for a hand into the face of Stevens, the Blues centre forward largely ploughing a lone furrow up front against his former club. A lovely passing move involving Sigurdsson, DCL and Walcott saw the cross again just too far in front of Richarlison with the Blues keeping the pressure on, Sigurdsson taking a pass from Digne to find Gomes for a shot that fizzed just wide of the target.
Basham was replaced by Zivkovic as the home side made their fourth change with eight minutes left in normal time. Carlo Ancelotti made the Blues first change on 83 minutes, Anthony Gordon replacing Theo Walcott who’d had a decent game on the right flank.
Fleck found Stevens in the box to turn and cross for Baldock who couldn’t direct his header on target as the home side strained for a late equaliser. Everton though were determined to protect their lead and Keane with another clearance saw Gordon fouled by Stevens.
Gylfi Sigurdsson was replaced by Seamus Coleman for the final couple of minutes and added-on time, a clear sign that Ancelotti was intent on keeping the Blades at bay with the additional defender. Richarlison was booked for not retreating ten yards at a free kick and the seconds kept ticking away until four extra minutes were signalled.
O’connell with a long ball into the Everton area saw a calm, clearing header from Jarrad Branthwaite, Davies blocked another attempted cross from Stevens, and Branthwaite won another header. DCL back in own penalty area headed clear but, this was not panic defending. Everton looked to relieve the pressure with a break of their own, Gordon away down the left to pull a cross back but nobody was there to get on the end of his effort.
Into the final minute of added-on time and the home side could not find a way past a resolute Everton rearguard where Keane was again the master and a final shot high over the bar from McGoldrick brought the final whistle and the points were won.
Full Time: 0-1