Two moments of class that produced two goals saw Everton through to the fourth round draw but, it was far from a safely navigated passage as Rotherham made light of their lowly Championship status.
The FA Cup Road to Wembley saw Rotherham United the first hurdle to be overcome although the absence of fans, thanks to Covid, reduced the advantage of playing at home. Historically and certainly romantically, the FA Cup is the trophy that energises football fans right across the country, those potential six games that culminate in an early summers day out at Wembley (semi-finals don’t count in my book) and, fingers crossed, glory and unbridled celebrations… limbs, grown men and women behaving like kids in an unguarded sweet shop.
For Everton, it was an ideal opportunity to enjoy some respite from the rigours of the marathon that is the Premier League, embrace and enjoy (?) a different challenge, the sprint to Wembley. For the visitors, the Millers of industrial South Yorkshire, it was their chance to forget the battle to avoid relegation from the Championship and possibly get in on the annual giant-killing act against one of the ‘big boys’ – that’s the magic of the FA Cup, you can forget all your troubles and go for glory.
Blues fans everywhere received excellent news on Friday as manager Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that left back Lucas Digne has been passed fit and is ready to return to first team action, with every possibility of featuring against Rotherham. “Lucas Digne is back, he is fit, his recovery was really fast. He has trained all week with us and he is in good condition. He can play on Saturday. The medical staff and him did a fantastic job. We know Lucas is a top professional. I think the surgery was good and the rehab was really good. It was unbelievable to see him back so early and training as usual.”
The boss also confirmed that… “James Rodriguez has trained all week and showed a good condition: not at the top but it could help for him to play tomorrow – he is close to the top [peak condition]. With the fact Digne and James are back, we are going to improve our offensive quality.”
The good news on Digne and Rodriguez was slightly tempered with Carlo confirming that Jordan Pickford, Richarlison and DCL won’t feature in the starting line-up, meaning a first full start of the season up front for Cenk Tosun as well as advising that Ben Godfrey will start in his more accustomed centre-back role, while not letting on who his partner at the heart of the defence would be.
Putting all the conjecture to one side, he named his starting eleven: Olsen, Coleman (c), Godfrey, Keane, Digne, Gomes, Gordon, Davies, Iwobi, Rodriguez and Tosun.
Opponents Rotherham are having a difficult season and currently lie in the relegation places at the bottom of the Championship but were pleased to advise that all of their players tested negative for Covid-19 ahead of the trip to Goodison. Manager Paul Warne confirmed a number of absentees through injuries – Clark Robertson (foot), Shaun MacDonald (broken leg), Joe Mattock and Kieran Sadlier (both ankle) and Chiedozie Ogbene were all unavailable – however, three on-loan players Jamal Blackman, Florian Jozefzoon and George Hirst were eligible for selection.
Speaking about playing in the FA Cup, Millers American defender Matt Olosunde commented, “We’re definitely up for it. Personally, I’m really excited for the opportunity to play in the FA Cup and at a Premier League club – these are the moments you dream about – and we’ll really get ourselves up for what will be a tough game.” The game being played behind closed doors wasn’t lost on the 22-year old when he said, “I’m gutted for the fans because I know plenty would have loved to see a game like the one on Saturday. Unfortunately, that represents the times we’re living in but we’ll still go out there and give it everything for them.” And on the possibility of facing the likes of James Rodriguez, he noted, “Playing against players like that and other world class players is definitely exciting and the lads will be fired up to be sharing a pitch with them.”
Hoping to spring a cup upset, Millers manager Warne named his starting line-up: Blackman, Harding, MacDonald, Ihiekwe, Wood (c), Olosunde, Wiles, Barlaser, Lindsay, Crooks and Smith.
Our referee for this cup opener on a bright, sunny, but cold lunchtime was Stuart Attwell.
Two early chances for the Blues as Anthony Gordon drove forward with purpose to gain the area and see his shot blocked excellently by Wiles and a cross from Digne reaching Gomes who pulled his hot wide of the target.
With just eight minutes on the clock, the Blues opened the scoring, Anthony Gordon with a sweet turn in midfield lost his marker and he played a delightful ball forward for Cenk Tosun to take and instantly chip the goalie from just inside the edge of the box – a Turkish delight of a start.
Patient play at the back eventually led to Davies playing a route one ball through the middle and just too strongly for Tosun to get on the end of – maybe an indication of a pattern of play to suit the Turkish striker? Everton were looking to get forward against a Millers side who also looked like they’d come to play and enjoy the cup experience, a header down from Harding seeing Ihiekwe firing over. The visitors weren’t subdued by going behind early and Smith blazed a shot wide on twenty minutes as they again got forward.
Olsen was called into action twice in quick succession saving with his legs from Olosunde and then turning a follow-up shot away at the expense of a corner that came to nothing. The Millers won a second corner as Crooks pressured Godfrey and Keane, Godfrey happy to head the ball behind for a third set piece that saw Crooks climb and see his header go just over the crossbar.
Half an hour gone and Rotherham were giving a good account of themselves, Crooks and Lindsay causing problems down the Everton left and winning another corner off Gomes. Olsen had to leave his line to somewhat clumsily beat Crooks to the ball as the visitors got forward again. A free kick saw Rotherham caught offside as Lindsay crashed in a good shot that Olsen saved well but, this showing was not great from the Blues who in all honesty had looked second best since taking the lead.
Rodriguez spread the ball wide right for Coleman to play a wall pass with Iwobi before crossing to Tosun whose mishit shot screwed wide of the target. Into the final five minutes of a half that started so positively and it was the Blues who were on the back foot as Olosunde again went forward at pace, forcing Digne into conceding another corner that was cleared initially before Crooks put a shot wide of the target with Wood unable to get to it.
One added minute was signalled and played out and whilst Everton led at the interval, Millers boss Paul Warne was probably much happier with his sides performance than Carlo Ancelotti with his.
Half Time: 1-0
No changes by either side for the second half that saw Rotherham start brightly, Olosunde again rampaging down the right and go down with referee Attwell immediately dismissing half-hearted appeals for a penalty. Everton responded with Tosun releasing Alex Iwobi but his shot went across the face of goal and wide.
Olosunde was proving a real thorn down the left hand side for Everton, another good run seeing him cross into the box and Tom Davies do well to smuggle the ball out of harms way. The Blues were really struggling to get anything going through the midfield, Gomes, Iwobi and Rodriguez all failing to impose themselves. And right on cue, or rather 56 minutes, and thoroughly deservedly the Millers drew level, Smith finding the impressive Olosunde who turned well to shoot beyond a stranded Olsen and inside the far post.
Everton, needing to get into the game, lined up changes with Bernard and Abdoulaye Doucoure warming up to eventually replace Gordon and Iwobi respectively on the hour mark after Olosunde had again jinked his way past Digne to set up another shooting opportunity that was wasted by Harding.
On 65 minutes, Yerry Mina replaced Lucas Digne, and Gylfi Sigurdsson came on for Tom Davies ahead of Rotherham withdrawing the hard-working Crooks to send on Vassell a minute later.
Rodriguez took a ball full in the face to leave him with a bloody nose leaving Everton a man short while he received treatment, and as Everton struggled to clear their lines, Vassell fired a shot well wide. Into the final twenty minutes, and it was still Rotherham who were looking much the more likely to break the deadlock as they poured forward clearly believing this was to be their day. A Sigurdsson free kick from the left flank came out to Rodriguez to crash in a shot that was deflected for the Blues first corner that came to nothing.
More changes for the visitors on 76 minutes saw Lindsay and Smith replaced by Jozefzoon and Hirst.
Ten minutes to play and extra time looming, could Everton finally produce something of quality to raise the spirits from a largely abject performance? Coleman forced Harding into conceding a second corner that Wood headed clear and Jozefzoon getting to clear feed Vassell, his first touch was far too heavy though to cause any real threat.
Clark for Harding was the Millers fourth change ahead of Tosun taking a heavy challenge to give the Blues a free kick that saw Rotherham clear as Blackman beat Tosun to a headed-on ball from Mina. At the other end, Clark crossed from the left for Hirst, Keane doing enough to deny him getting on the end of it.
A free kick for a foul on Ben Godfrey saw James Rodriguez place a perfect ball for Cenk Tosun to despatch beyond Blackman for his second ‘goal’ of the game. VAR reviewed for offside against Tosun and probably Mina too, and ruled in the visitors favour.
Four added minutes were signalled and Everton were still struggling to make any real headway against the Championship side, not playing with any real pace or apparent belief in their abilities to overcome a hard-working Rotherham side.
Coleman conceded a 93rd minute corner that Barlaser swung in, Everton finally breaking quickly to win a corner of their own at the Gwladys Street End that was punched clear and the game went to extra time.
Full Time: 1-1
For the extra thirty minutes, Jones replaced Olosunde – a move that quite possibly pleased Everton as the American had been a genuine threat throughout normal time.
Bernard and Gomes tried to work crossing opportunities only for the Millers defence to stand firm but, it was pierced a minute later as a peach of a through ball from James Rodriguez put Abdoulaye Doucoure in between the two central defenders and he finished confidently with a low shot to the keepers right hand side just three minutes into the added thirty.
James Rodriguez was the Blues final change after making the goal, Niels Nkounkou his replacement. Gomes set Nkounkou free down the left and his cross came out to Bernard whose instant shot hit the post and went to safety. Tosun was next with a shot as Everton finally woke up to the task – more efforts in the first five minutes of extra time than in normal time.
Bernard with a nice turn and ball to Coleman saw the skipper make ground before a deflected shot was turned away by Blackman for a corner. A long ball from Olsen saw Gomes and Tosun exchange passes before the final ball from Gomes was just too strong for the Turkish striker to get on the end of. Nkounkou, found by Gomes, crossed from the left and Tosun and MacDonald both went down, the latter needing treatment for what looked a nasty fall. At least five added minutes to the first half of extra time were signalled while MacDonald recovered and was ready to continue.
Into the second half of extra time and Hirst was booked for a flailing arm into the face of Yerry Mina that saw him need treatment. After a delay, it was Rotherham who were back on the front foot with Jozefzoon crossing for Clark and Hirst to try and get on the end of before Olsen finally grabbed the ball in his arms.
Vassell got forward with purpose getting away from Gomes and Keane, Mina finally halting his charge by blocking his shot. Everton still weren’t imposing themselves on the game seemingly content to try and see out time, a ploy that too often goes pear-shaped if game management skills aren’t good enough. A late burst by Tosun and Bernard saw the former fail to get a shot away and into the dying moments, it was Rotherham trying their hardest to force a penalty shoot-out.
Four more added minutes were signalled and slid by without further incident and finally the whistle blew to send Everton through but, not without a struggle.
After Extra Time: 2-1
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