Final third problems hamper Everton

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

Everton are an unpredictable watch of late, winning when not playing well, dropping points despite good performances; there really is no telling which side is going to turn up.

At Stamford Bridge, by virtue of a cruel, calamitous injury-time goal, it was the latter that was applicable.

There is little doubt that the display at Chelsea warranted reward but slack defending ensured the Blues left with nothing except praise for their approach, a recurring theme in a number of fixtures on the road this season.

Just one clean sheet has been registered in the last 12 matches, following a run of eight in 14 and maddening lapses in concentration are proving costly in defence.

For the second successive away day -- it was a similar hard-luck story at Tottenham -- poor defending and continued problems in the final third meant zero points instead of one from a performance that was perhaps worthy of three.

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Though Ramires fooled referee Lee Probert into the awarding of the free-kick -- players actively seeking contact is seemingly accepted as part of the game nowadays -- which led to the goal, there is no excuse for the series of errors that followed.

From Sylvain Distin switching off to leave John Terry unmarked, to defensive line sat too deep and Tim Howard daydreaming, the goal was an all-round disaster.

Worryingly, this result follows the Tottenham defeat in which similar lapses gave Emmanuel Adebayor the opportunity to snatch an unlikely victory.

Everton cannot afford to be a soft touch at the back because, at the opposite end of the pitch it was a familiar tale, as goals continue to be hard to come by.

The cause was not helped by the loss of Lacina Traore to a hamstring injury in the warm-up, which saw Steven Naismith again pressed into action as the lone striker.

On recent evidence, the return of Romelu Lukaku cannot arrive quick enough. In spite of the goals drying up for him prior to his injury, it is obvious that he offers more than his makeshift replacements, simply by occupying opposing centre backs with his movement and physical presence.

The Belgian provides a constant presence leading the line, gives the attack a focal point and helps to open up space for his team-mates. In his absence, the so-called end product has become obsolete with flowing football hitting an invisible wall on the edge of the opposing penalty area.

Clear-cut chances are few and far between, even though possession is plentiful, and the select few that do arrive are being snatched at, which creates a vicious cycle of missed opportunities within a team lacking a cutting edge.

While the defence is a concern, what makes the toothless attack easily the most frustrating of the two units is the quality of the build-up play. Led by the excellent Gareth Barry, who received strong support from James McCarthy, there was -- not for the first time this season -- much to admire in the midfield on Saturday.

Until the latter stages, when Everton began to lose their way due to poor showings from substitutes -- Ross Barkley resembled a hungover Sunday league player -- and others tiring, the midfield more than matched their counterparts.

McCarthy crusaded around the pitch, making his presence felt with a series of fair but robust tackles, while Barry, who turns 33 on Sunday, showcased his passing range throughout.

In front of them, combining effectively with Leighton Baines, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar looked to fashion openings whenever possible, with one neat passage of play in the first half forcing Petr Cech into a fine save from Osman.

This third successive away defeat signals the end of a torrid trip of away games against others near the top of the table and, with Everton having mustered no points and no goals, the momentum is firmly with the competition in the race for Europe.

All Roberto Martinez's men can do now, with the transfer window a distant and disappointing memory, is persevere in a bid to fix the final third issues hampering the side.

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