European hopes may fade unless Everton act now

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

Everton let two points slip away on Monday, with West Brom good value for their share of the spoils, and it was the latest in a number of reality checks this season. Whenever the team looks set to cement their Champions League credentials, or steal a yard on their rivals, the lines are fluffed.

- Report: West Brom 1-1 Everton
- Report: Everton add Traore on loan

Disappointing draws against Tottenham and Crystal Palace followed on from a trio of wins over Chelsea, West Ham and Newcastle, while a last-gasp barely deserved draw at Stoke arrived on the back of another impressive run.

One of the few to perform at the Hawthorns, Gareth Barry, had it right in his post-match interview: "It's nine draws for us now and that's too many". The lowest number of defeats in the league (two) is masking an inability to convert presentable openings in the race for European football.

Already shorn of the creative talents of Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley, the absence of Steven Pienaar further depleted an Everton midfield lacking depth. The Blues sorely missed the trio; the Toffees look a much weaker proposition without the cleverness of Pienaar and the drive in possession of Barkley.

And, as was the case under David Moyes, Everton cannot seem to get the best out of Leighton Baines without Pienaar. The underrated defensive work rate of Pienaar becomes all the more apparent in his absence, and nobody in the squad matches him for spatial awareness and movement.

Because of the injuries, there was an experimental look to the creative unit tasked with supporting the increasingly forlorn figure of Romelu Lukaku. Bryan Oviedo, who played with purpose and positivity before fading in the second half, found himself in an unfamiliar role on the right of midfield; Leon Osman began on the left and Kevin Mirallas started in a central position.

Struggling throughout, especially when receiving possession in his own half, Osman continues to flounder when named in the starting line-up. Lacking strength and pace, weary legs defined a second half showing that left Baines exposed behind him.

The problem for Roberto Martinez is that Osman is best suited to busy cameos in the latter stages, but injuries and Aiden McGeady's lack of match fitness mean the 32-year old is required from the start at present.

In marked contrast to his fellow midfielder, Mirallas did at least carry a threat. A well-taken goal vindicated those wishing to see the Belgian in a central role, and there were flashes of skill and pace at various intervals.

The key now, though, especially with Lukaku stuck in a rut, is for Mirallas to maintain a level of consistency. Despite the goal, erratic decision-making and over-elaboration readily punctuated his evening.

The somewhat disjointed midfield aside, panicky defending was another hallmark of this underwhelming display. At various junctures, whether it was Tim Howard or the centre-backs ahead of him, there were uncharacteristic, unnecessary moments of chaos.

One such episode sparked the chain of events leading to the West Brom equaliser. It began with a bizarre counter-attack attempt from Howard, when Everton needed composure and a chance to regroup, and it ended -- either side of slack defending from Baines, Sylvain Distin and James McCarthy -- with a diving header from Diego Lugano.

On the back of this match -- one of several below par performances in recent weeks -- the conundrum for Martinez is whether to stick or twist on the recruitment front. Injuries leave the midfield short on quality and quantity, with Barry and McCarthy overworked, while the forward area needs bolstering -- regardless of the outcome of the Lacina Traore deal.

Everton need players; that much is obvious, although there is also the option of digging in and waiting for the walking wounded to return. It is worth noting, however, that this approach has cost the Blues dearly in the past.

Furthermore, with trips to Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea accounting for three of the next five league games, riding out the injury storm is a risky move that threatens to stop this European push in its tracks. The question is: can Everton afford to do that, as they may not get a better chance to gatecrash the Champions League party.

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