Far from their fluent best, Everton showed a degree of defensive resilience en route to a 2-1 victory over Real Betis Sunday at Goodison Park. Ably supported by his defence -- overworked on this occasion -- keeper Tim Howard is beginning to eradicate the error-strewn form of last season.
In front of Howard is the ageless Sylvain Distin. Strong in the air, quick across the ground and sharp in the tackle, the French defender was impressive in the face of Betis pressure. Approaching his 36th birthday, it is a shame Everton acquired Distin at the tail end of his career
Zipping the ball across the lush Goodison turf, the Spanish outfit provided a stern test, as expected. Finishing seventh in La Liga last season, there were regular flashes of that ability Sunday. Creating the clearer chances, Betis were especially unfortunate to be trailing at half-time.
-Jelavic hot streak continues
As a result of Everton wide players pushing too far forward, Betis found plenty of joy down the flanks, and only the aforementioned defensive heroics kept the visitors out. Fortunately, the home side improved after half-time as the Toffees functioned more cohesively.
Beforehand, as team news filtered through, the cynics were out in force due to the absence of Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini will be available for the opening-day trip to Norwich this Saturday; his absence Sunday was merely a precautionary measure.
On the evidence of what followed, the return of Fellaini can only be a good thing. Darron Gibson limped off just before the end first half; the midfielder has up a grade 1 ligament injury which Everton will assess within 48 hours. Supporters will pray for a quick recovery as the Toffees can ill afford the loss of such a key midfielder.
Alongside Gibson, Leon Osman failed to seize his chance. Struggling to impose himself in preseason, the diminutive midfielder looks a shadow of his best heading into the Carrow Road opener. Replacing Gibson, John Heitinga performed admirably in front of the back four,although he is best suited to a defensive role.
At the head of the midfield trio was Ross Barkley. The youngster has raw potential, which epitomised his mixed bag of a performance. One misplaced pass almost gifted Betis a goal, yet others kick-started attacking moves. Given Osman's lacklustre preseason, there is a case for Barkley deserving his chance.
Furthermore, given the obvious concern over Gibson, supporters are calling for central midfield reinforcements. Oddly enough, however, many seem to think selling Fellaini to the highest bidder is the answer. At this late stage, with the season days away, selling arguably the best central midfielder at the club in order to gamble on replacements would border on insanity.
Elsewhere, Seamus Coleman maintained his highly consistent form. The Irish full-back has cemented his place to become a vital part of this side in both attack and defence. Ahead of Coleman, Kevin Mirallas remains a live wire. A constant threat, Mirallas notched another goal albeit fortuitously; Betis keeper Stephan Andersen fumbled an overhit cross into the back of the net.
Leading the line, Nikica Jelavic maintained his recent upturn in form. Scoring his fourth preseason goal thanks to a well-taken finish at the far post, Jelavic is thriving without the larger-than-life presence of Fellaini in the advanced role.
Tested defensively, Everton battled hard to edge out their talented opponents. Despite the late Betis goal and the Gibson injury, the Blues look in good shape (for the most part) heading into the new campaign. After all, before any snap judgements are made, this is still preseason.