A second half blast from Dwight McNeil earned the Blues a massive and vital three points from a game that they had much the better chances in, especially first half. Jordan Pickford made two excellent saves late on and super performances from James Garner, Jarrad Branthwaite and every other player in Blue got its rewards.
How we all hate hyperbole but, the two-word phrase ‘must win’ immediately sprang to mind when looking forward to this tea-time clash at the City Ground with Nottingham Forest. Everton, still to some degree reeling from the shock of the wholly inappropriate 10-point ‘sporting sanction’ deduction for misdemeanours of an off-field financial nature, travelled knowing that from now until the end of the season – or the cruel-on-the-team-manager-and-fans points deduction is overturned or massively reduced – that two-word phrase will be quoted far and wide by supported and media alike.
Under the right circumstances, this game would have been 15th in the table hosting the team in 14th but, the ill-conceived, allegedly independent commission had made it otherwise. Forest lost their previously unbeaten at home record against Brighton last week and there are rumours that manager Steve Cooper is under pressure from impatient club ownership. Nevertheless, he remained in charge for the visit of the Blues and named his starting line-up thus: Vlachodimos, Aurier, Boly, Murillo, Toffolo, Sangare, Mangala, Yates (c), Gibbs-White, Wood and Elanga.
Having recorded five victories away from Goodison so far this season, the Blues travelled to the East Midlands in relatively good heart and away form, and another win on the road would give the fans and the club a tremendous lift going into what can only be described as a hectic December calendar of games.
With fitness concerns over midfielder Amadou Onana and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin having muscle tightness, Portuguese striker Beto was on standby to lead the attack for the first time since early September.
Looking to commence the climb away to safety, having slipped to the foot of the table with Burnley having tonked Sheffield United, Blues boss Sean Dyche named his starting eleven: Jordan Pickford, Ashley Young, James Tarkowski (c), Jarrad Branthwaite, Vitalii Mykolenko, Jack Harrison, James Garner, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dwight McNeil, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Beto.
In charge of proceedings was referee Paul Tierney.
Prior to the kick-off, the travelling fans brandished the pink Corrupt signs again sending another significant message to the football authorities over the strength of feeling against the sporting sanction imposed on the club.
Forest started brightly looking for a breakthrough to hurt the Blues who stood firm under the early onslaught whilst looking to try and counter attack as the home side piled bodies forward. And it was Everton who won the games first corner as McNeil tried to burst through the centre of the Forest defence and it was a lucky moment for Vlachodimos as he misjudged the cross and was helpd out by his defence. Tarkowski tried to get Mykolenko in behind Aurier who recovered to steer the ball out for a goal kick.
Ten minutes gone and Young fouled Elanga for a free kick just left of the penalty area, Gana Gueye headed the set piece from Gibbs-White clear before McNeil took a tumble after contact from Sangare. Wood for Forest was the next to go down and he needed some treatment on his left knee while former RS Divi Origi stripped off just in case the former Burnley striker couldn’t continue… which he did.
Good pressure by the Blues saw Forest clear a cross from Young and then clear a cross by McNeil but the Blues kept the pressure on with another cross causing some concern in the home defence before Harrison miskicked another cross behind for a goal kick. Garner released Gana Gueye down the right, his cross only cleared as far as Garner who saw a first time effort saved easily by Vlachodimos. The Blues had weathered the early Forest raids and were now beginning to get on top forcing Boly into a foul on McNeil for a free kick midway inside the Forest half that the home side smuggled away as a free kick was awarded against Tarkowski.
Twenty minutes had sailed by with the Blues not looking like a team under pressure, more like a team relishing the challenge and prepared to five it everything. Forest were struggling to retain any possession and should have fallen behind when Vlachodimos made a hash of another ball into the area and Beto spooned a glorious chance over the bar when he really should have buried it.
Garner was caught by Aurier on 25 minutes and Jordan Pickford launched a long ball that Forest cleared too easily and when they did get forward through Elanga again, he got behind Young but, saw his cross easily gathered by Pickford. Forest regained some possession and worked an opening for Elanga to shoot but, it went across the face of goal and wide, causing no problem for Pickford.
A member of the Forest coaching staff was yellow carded for questioning a throw-in decision that went the Blues way, that’ll teach the gobby so and so to mind his language. Forest won their first corner when Gana Gueye headed a ball from Aurier behind and Jarrad Branthwaite got a good clearing header away with a follow-up shot easily blocked and cleared by the Blues defence.
Into the final ten minutes of the first half and the home side were now having arguably their best spell of the game however, they weren’t overly troubling Everton who were defending confidently and robustly when needed. A good interception by Garner to feed McNeil for a cross that was cleared back to him and a first time header sailed harmlessly over the bar. Both Forest centre backs, Boly and Murillo, were struggling a little in the lead up to the interval as another ball aimed towards Beto didn’t find him and the home side cleared to midfield.
Everton again should have taken the lead when Young found Doucoure and he threaded a ball into the path of McNeil who saw his low shot beat the keeper only for Murillo to get back and clear off the line with the help of the post. Murillo was hurt in the process and needed treatment before returning to the field. Five added minutes were announced as Murillo went down again claiming contact from the arm of Beto.
Young found Doucoure again to get the Blues forward with Forest eventually winning a free kick for a foul by James Garner. And Forest nearly snatched a half time lead as a mistake by Tarkowski saw Sangare feed Gibbs-White who hit the side netting instead of the target. A late attack by the Blues saw Aurier deny McNeil found again by Doucoure and at the interval, the teams were tied, Everton having had the two best chances of the half without breaking the deadlock.
Half Time: 0-0
A change by Forest for the start of the second half saw Felipe, back from a knee strain, replace Boly in the home back four, Everton unchanged as they kicked off attacking the Trent End.
Elanga again showed the pace to get away from Young, his cross cleared by Tarkowski but again, Forest were looking to exploit quick youth against an aging Young. Branthwaite headed a Gibbs-White free kick away and the Everton counter fizzled out tamely as a poor ball from Beto was easily picked off. Forest won a corner on their right and it led to a moment of pinball in the Blues area with Yates looking to be pulled down by Doucoure as the ball came to Felie for a close range shot that went wide.
Felipe was then booked for a clear pull back on Dwight McNeil, taking a booking for the team, with the free kick dead centre about eight yards outside the Forest area. Young saw his shot hit the wall and spin out for a corner on the right that Sangare hooked clear. Everton came again with McNeil looking fornd Branthwaite who’d stayed forward, Tarkowski then fed Mykolenko, his low cross was hoofed clear as Forest took no chances on fancy defending.
Tarkowski spread a ball wide left for Mykolenko, his cross cleared to Garner who was fouled and the Blues had another free kick in a good position that Forest defended. Beto was struggling to make any impression upon the game and as we passed the hour mark, he looked to be the player Sean Dyche should have considered replacing with either Chermiti or Dobbin. Everton won another corner on the right, McNeil swinging it in and Gana Gueye seeing a shot charged down and cleared.
Everton were back on top and looking much the more likely to find a way through to goal but another effort by Beto found its way into the terracing behind the goal. A forest counter came to nothing as Gibbs-White crossed towards Wood but, over his head. Hudson-Odoi replaced Sangare on 65 minutes and a minute later the deadlock was finally broken as a cross from Jack Harrison found Dwight McNeil and he controlled the ball before unleashing a piledriver across the face of goal into the top corner. The travelling fans erupted and Spirit of the Blues rang around the City Ground in celebration of a goal that could mean so, so much to Everton.
Into the final twenty minutes and Aurier denied McNeil again as the offside flag went up against the Blues winger, as Everton looked to put the game beyond Forest. McNeil on Yates saw the home side win a free kick that saw Toffolo find Elanga and Mykolenko did just enough to ensure that his eventual shot hit the side netting. The corner was defended amid shouts for hand ball against Doucoure that had it been given would have been harsh in the extreme.
Jordan Pickford was spoken to about time wasting at a goal kick and we passed 75 minutes with the cool Branthwaite calmly heading a cross from Elanga to safety. Garner with a super block in his own area on a shot from Yates after a poor clearing throw by Pickford and he advised the England ‘keeper of his feelings too, JP waving acknowledgement of his error. Garner was having a fine game in the heart of the Everton midfield, winning so much second ball and dictating play as the Blues looked to go forward with purpose.
Felipe was a tad fortunate not to see a second yellow card for a foul and then Garner was hurt in an aerial challenge with Yates. On 82 minutes, thr largely ineffective Beto was rightly replaced by Youssef Chermiti with Forest responding withdrawing Toffolo for Origi. From the restart, Pickford was lightning fast off his line to narrow the angle on a shot from Elanga.
Forest were straining forward for a late equaliser but finding Everton offering stiff resistance although Pickford was forced to make a save low to his left to push a shot from Murillo away. A Forest free kick was defended and Felipe was again somewhat fortunate in fouling Gana Gueye to find referee Tierney in a benevolent mood.
Wood passed up the chance of a shot in order to feed Elanga but, he bent his shot around both Pickford and the far post… and we entered the final minute of normal time. Four added minutes were announced, four minutes between Everton and three vital points.
Cool work by Tarkowski and then Doucoure slowly worked the ball away before Forest tried to build again only to run up against an Everton midfield and defence in defiant mood. Tarkowski headed a Hudson-Odoi cross clear and the seconds ticked away. Branthwaite cleared another cross from Hudson-Odoi and more seconds ebbed away… and into the final sixty seconds, it was Harrison clearing again as the final whistle blew and the Blue section on the crowd went mildly crazy in celebration.