And still, we wait. Gallantly though they fought against imperious Manchester City, there was ultimately no knifing their way out of this gunfight for Everton, meaning that, if not for want of trying, 26 years of dust-gathering will endure for at least another season yet.
To commend Everton’s stoicism against a side Carlo Ancelotti described after this 2-0 defeat as the best in the world may feel like scant consolation. We’ve been here before, in regimes past and present, after all. But while it counted for nothing tangible, there was a feeling of pride restored by their performance against a team which, all things considered, they couldn’t have tried much harder to defuse.
You know the drill with Ancelotti’s Everton against objectively better teams by now. Fill the bunkers to the brim with men in royal blue, slide tackle all in sight, carefully choose your moments to make calculated advances. It won’t win prizes for aesthetics, but against Chelsea, Leicester and Liverpool already this season, it’s come up trumps for them, as it did for the first 84 minutes of this FA Cup quarter-final, at least.
And truthfully, Everton largely matched their quadruple-chasing opponents stride for stride. Goalkeeper Joao Virginia shone with a confidence and composure belying the 21-year-old’s inexperience between the sticks, and was only seriously called upon when denying Raheem Sterling with an excellent fingertip save. That he wasn’t overworked was a testament to the collective effort, not least from the thunderous Ben Godfrey in central defence.
The only disappointment was Everton’s profligacy on the rare occasion that chances fell their way. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s early through-ball looked tailor-made for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, only for City stopper Zack Steffen to scruffily repel him. Yerry Mina came close with a header Oleksandr Zinchenko cleared off the line. Richarlison twice misfired when set-pieces landed awkwardly at his feet. Not clear-cut opportunities by any means, but they all felt excruciatingly like ‘nearly’ moments, all the same.
Even more so as the game unspooled further and further, as City began landing blow after blow on punch-drunk Everton, as it started feeling inevitable that they would eventually foil Everton’s best-laid plans and cause the dam to burst. Little by little, they simply wore Ancelotti’s men down, passing the ball around like a joint at a frat party. Their 668 passes to Everton’s 226, and 853 touches to the hosts’ 387, tells its own story in that regard.
And with only dead air emanating from the Goodison Park stands, rather than the cacophony it would doubtless have drummed up if packed to the rafters, there was no second wind for Everton’s wearied soldiers to feed off. Nor, unlike City, was there much to turn to in reserve; Pep Guardiola’s substitutes included six Premier League winners, whereas only three of Ancelotti’s nine were senior Everton players. That only Alex Iwobi was introduced - and in the 87th minute, with City having just gone one up through Ilkay Gundogan - epitomised the comparative paucity of quality on Ancelotti’s bench.
It’s difficult to deride Ancelotti’s approach, either. Had Everton been more cavalier, they’d have surely played right into City’s hands and been thumped. The second goal felt a case in point; as time ticked away and they had little choice but to go hell for leather, the visitors broke at blistering speed before Kevin De Bruyne - a City substitute - finished emphatically.
A two-goal margin may have slightly flattered Guardiola’s side, but there is undeniably something other-worldly about City when the pieces all land in place for them. In their pomp, every move of theirs feels meticulously choreographed, so endlessly rehearsed, so ingrained into their players’ psyche. Yet this did not happen overnight; this is the end result of good recruitment and even better coaching. Therein lies a valuable lesson for Everton.
Indeed, it’s worth remembering that it took Guardiola a season to mine his next footballing mother lode, with deeper pockets than Ancelotti now has and no global health crisis to contend with, either. Four years on from his fruitless debut campaign in English football, which included a 4-0 Goodison drubbing, and City looked every inch a side 279 games into their manager’s reign. Everton, for all their endeavour and for all the positives they can draw from this defeat, at times looked very much 57 matches into theirs.
At which point, as Everton now enter an international break on the back of three straight defeats for the second time this term, time to take a breath. Superfluous as this gap in the schedule seems, it feels rather well-timed for Ancelotti’s side. The 16 days between the City loss and Crystal Palace’s visit on April 5 should also give the select few not representing their countries ample opportunity to reset after a relentless few months. That there should be no more than two multi-game weeks in the final two months of the season should be greatly beneficial to a depleted side who have looked dead on their feet for some time now.
Meanwhile, James Rodriguez, so utterly essential to Everton’s attack, will hopefully have fully recovered from his niggling injury by then. The rejuvenated Jordan Pickford may also be back in goal, too. Allan and Mina should be further up to speed having just returned from knocks themselves. All of these players will likely play pivotal roles in the final act of Everton’s season.
For as much as it may feel like it in the immediate aftermath - not least because Evertonians have become used to writing seasons off by January - all is not lost. The FA Cup dream may have died for another year, but if Everton lick their wounds, return from the break with renewed vigour, and at least maintain the level of togetherness and resilience on display at City, a more palpable reward in the form of European qualification won’t be quite such a distant dream.