The acid test, in reality, was never this weekend’s Merseyside Derby. It was never how a toiling Everton would fare against Liverpool’s treacherous triumvirate, or if the weight of pressure of contesting a ‘World Cup final’ would prove too heavy to withstand.
No; in many ways, the prelude to Sunday’s main event, the Blues’ trip to lowly Cardiff City, provided a fascinating, and arguably more accurate insight into where Marco Silva and his side currently find themselves.
Because, easy as it is to become enveloped in the feral, exhilarating atmosphere synonymous with derby day, these games often take care of themselves. Ultimately, if a professional footballer cannot find himself suitably enthused to take on his club’s fiercest rivals, then for which games can he?
Cardiff away, on the other hand, is no such game. Certainly not on a Tuesday night in February. Certainly not against wily Neil Warnock’s band of burly brothers, fighting to save their top-flight skins.
It is churlish, and downright wrong, to argue it is a harder fixture than Liverpool at home; in that respect, the two are poles apart.
But it is the sort of fixture which has repeatedly crippled Everton’s progress; last season, for instance, they recorded a paltry two away wins at those who finished in the bottom half of the table. The year before, just three. The year before that, the same. It is a squad belying its genuine ability and potential with a fundamental mental block.
We have seen the same old sorry story too often under Silva, too, not least in the gutless, and pointless, post-Christmas debacles at Brighton & Hove Albion, Southampton and Watford FC. On paper, anyway, the trip to South Wales bore all the hallmarks of a fourth chapter to the Blues’ tale of away woe.
After showing shoots of encouragement in the 2-0 home defeat to Manchester City, Silva’s proclivity for reverting to type, which has beset Everton time and again this term, reared its ugly head in that defeat to the Hornets.
To change his approach against the Bluebirds was admirable, even if bringing back the exiled pair of Morgan Schneiderlin and Phil Jagielka, as well as a hopelessly out-of-form duo in Gylfi Sigurðsson and Seamus Coleman, had few blue pulses racing.
Yet his game plan nullified Cardiff perfectly. Jagielka, barring one early faux pas, led by example at the heart of defence, Schneiderlin provided his typically calming, no-nonsense qualities as the midfield metronome, and he, Coleman and Sigurðsson combined expertly for the Blues’ opener, in one of the best moves Silva’s men have fashioned all season.
It would not extend to the Roberto Martínez realms of hyperbole to suggest that the 3-0 win over Cardiff was one of Everton’s most significant results of the season. A side that laboured wearily in that Vicarage Road defeat 17 days earlier looked revitalised, with a far clearer idea of their manager’s blueprint, and how to implement it.
And unlike after the heartening City defeat, the momentum carried this time. Liverpool’s quality was always going to tell, but the Blues, roared on by 39,000 Evertonians bellowing their unwavering support for their players, some of which have let them down far too often this season, showed an unprecedented level of resilience to keep them, for the most part, at arm’s length. Ultimately, a goalless draw was just reward.
There is no doubt the atmosphere worked enormously to Everton’s advantage, either. Goodison Park, for far too long, has been making a slow, arduous gait to the grave, but yesterday, the life support machine was plugged back in. It might be unrealistic to expect that level of volume for every home game, but Silva was spot on when saying even 70 per cent of that noise does almost half the job for his side.
| That noise... COYB! #DerbyDay pic.twitter.com/swImrMMb2a— Everton (@Everton) March 3, 2019
Much has been made of the Toffees’ daunting home fixture list, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United next up at Goodison, but with an amalgam of yesterday’s vociferous, relentless support, and a side playing with such heart, there is little reason to expect anything another than a repeat of yesterday, at the absolute minimum. When fan base, players and staff are all in unison, the Blues are invariably at their best.
Silva cut a beleaguered, downcast figure away at Watford last month, as the fans of his former club revelled in beating a manager who left them in the lurch last campaign. In reality, he probably needed at least the four points he earned from the two games since.
But in ridding himself of the naïve, hard-nosed approach which has scuppered Everton’s season, and in being intelligent enough to plan accordingly for the threats posed by both Warnock’s and Jurgen Klopp’s sides, he warrants as much credit for these results as anyone else.
For the manager, the squad, and the fans, the bar has been set in this last week. Now for the tricky bit, the real test of character - not falling meekly below it again, starting on Saturday away at Newcastle.