Behind closed doors but nothing to see as England’s search for missing link continues

Hopefully we won’t have to experience this again. It was a great chance for England to kick-start their Nations League campaign, but it resulted in an opportunity wasted in subdued, soulless fashion in Rijeka.

They had the home crowd silenced for them, but for all the build-up of how Gareth Southgate’s side would cope with playing behind closed doors, it really was a case of ‘nothing to see here’ in Croatia.

The second-half was considerably better than the first, pierced on the hour-mark by the unmistakable sound a bin lorry makes when reversing. It turned out to be an ambulance but it just about summed this up. It was rubbish.

Josip Pivaric produced a fine last-ditch sliding tackle to prevent Raheem Sterling from the type of far post tap-in he’s made his trademark at Manchester City, while Eric Dier headed Jordan Henderson’s corner onto the post.

Harry Kane rattled the woodwork in the second period while Marcus Rashford missed two gilt-edged chances that sums up his current lapse in confidence that has travelled with him from Manchester.


England recorded just one shot in the first half – the fewest amount in the opening 45 minutes of an away game since June 2015 against the Republic of Ireland.

Here was proof that players need support from the stands, a revenge mission that will be remembered fondly only by the 16 hardened souls who stood atop a hill outside Stadion HNK, unable to even see one of the goal-mouths.

Before the second half, they could be heard singing, “Pickford, give us a wave?” The goalkeeper duly obliged for the biggest cheer of the evening.

Having found their voice and form, moments later came the ironic chants of “Your support is f****** shit” and slightly more impassioned “F**k off UEFA, we’ll do what we want!”

Croatia v England - UEFA Nations League A

They saw the first England international born in the 21st Century, with Jadon Sancho introduced with 13 minutes remaining, the youngest player to play for the senior team since Sterling at 18 years and 201 days.

His lively cameo will have been their one takeaway from this glorified training game, but there was little to get excited about.

Three months on, England confronted their World Cup semi-final foes, rekindling memories of the summer of 2018, Glenn Hoddle’s Love Train, Harry Maguire’s head, Boxpark Croydon and all that.

But it was a Nations League six-pointer in front of an official crowd of zero, and there were zero goals and zero talking points.

Of course, those 16 were the lucky few – around a hundred members of the media, 65 dignitaries from the English FA and the same from their Croatian counterparts were inside, while roads had been blocked off by police aiming to discourage fans from making the 102-mile trip from Zagreb.

Around 500 Three Lions supporters had instantly pressed the ‘purchase’ button when this fixture was first announced, a week before FIFA confirmed the game would be closed to the public as part of a punishment handed to Croatia after a swastika was marked on the pitch before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015.

It was the first time in 988 senior internationals dating back to 1872 that England contested a game behind closed doors. Only three previous games involving English teams have been played under such conditions.


Most recently in 2014, Manchester City faced CSKA Moscow in a Champions League match in Russia, while you have to go back as far as the early 1980s for the other two occasions.

West Ham hosted Real Madrid B in a Cup Winners’ Cup match in the 1980-81 season while Aston Villa’s home European Cup tie against Besiktas in 1982-83 was also played in an empty stadium.

Former England defender Martin Keown feared the conditions might in fact add pressure to the young players, but it was Sancho who provided the injection of energy in the final quarter of an hour in this snoozefest.

So what, if anything did we learn? Southgate had played his preferred formation of 3-5-2 for over a year, but he dispensed with that on Friday night.

“We think it’s time for the team to evolve a bit,” he said prior to the match. “3-5-2 has been fantastic for us really. We maximised the talents of the players across the summer, but in a couple of the matches against the better teams, we’ve suffered a bit without the ball.


“We wanted to have a look at a back four, I think it suits the players we’ve got playing tonight, it still gives us the opportunity to move the ball and be a threat, but hopefully we’ll cover the spaces that were a bit of a problem for us in the last couple of games.”

Southgate cited his side being overloaded by Switzerland in midfield and down the flanks towards the end of his time using the old formation, but the shift towards a more attacking system was designed to suit an extra midfielder, and to find the missing link.

Ross Barkley returned to the side for the first time since May 2016 – his first game under Southgate – as part of a three-man midfielder in front of a flat back four. He has looked in good physical condition, and the former Everton midfielder was played in the same position that has led to his resurgence at Chelsea.

This was Southgate acknowledging the need to try out a different approach if England are to ever beat the leading nations when it matters, but what it showed was that an in-form Barkley is the same player he was at Everton without Eden Hazard.

With Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard absent, this was his chance to stake a claim. A chance for England to exorcise some demons from 93 days ago? Barkley has had to wait considerably longer than that, admitting this week he’d watched the Croatia defeat among fans during a family holiday.

That friendly against Australia was the last of his previous 22 caps, coming on as a second-half substitute, while you have to go back more than three years for his last competitive start – against Lithuania in October 2015.

But he was a largely peripheral figure, outshone by the rich talent in midfield whose company he shared, bizarrely opting not to appeal what looked a good shout for a penalty when he was clipped by Ante Rebic inside the box.


Barkley was not alone in scurrying down blind alleys, but there was little to suggest he will be the long-term answer to England’s search for a midfield playmaker.

Two chances in quick succession were squandered by Rashford, showing too much of his intentions on both occasions as he opened up his body and found the gloves of Dominik Livakovic, but neither side controlled proceedings for any significant period.

There was an eerie feel to this fixture in a stadium with a capacity of 8,217 on the northern Adriatic coast, with Southgate warning his players to watch their language due to the absence of an atmosphere.

Only Henderson was clearly heard barking profanities at Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic after a decision went against him. “Are you the f***** ref?!” he said after 30 minutes. It was an all-too brief reminder of what was at stake.

The introduction of the Nations League has brought a competitive edge to what might otherwise have been a pointless friendly, but while the noises coming from the two sides revealed an eagerness to avoid relegation from the top tier of UEFA’s fledgling competition, the empty stands appeared to hinder both sets of players.


This was a vastly different experience to the contest played in front of 78,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium three months ago, and there were very few conclusions that could be drawn on a very bumpy pitch.

Henderson was again England’s most creative player here. His two set pieces led to Dier and Kane hitting the woodwork – with the Tottenham striker having now gone six internationals without a goal – and the striker’s offside finish also came from a Henderson pass.

That says a lot about England’s missing stardust, and Kane might well have wished to have seen Sancho introduced sooner given the raw, fearlessness he showed. Ben Chilwell, on his first England start, looks primed to grow into the role at left-back after a confident display.

England were the better side, but for once, their failure to beat another leading nation was somewhat overshadowed by the conditions.

They head to Seville next knowing this odd night will not live long in the memory, but also that they must be far more clinical in front of goal against Luis Enrique’s in-form Spain side in far more raucous surroundings.

Southgate reflected afterwards: “You want to perform in front of a crowd. It raises the level of the game, but I thought our players were really good. We defended well and pressed well.

“If we’d been a bit more ruthless with our chances, we would’ve won the game.”



FIFA rechaza la venta de Adrien Silva a Leicester City por 14 segundos

Parece cada vez mas probable que Adrien Silva va a quedar a Sporting CP hasta el fin del ano por lo menos después de la decision de FIFA para no aceptar los documentos de registro enviado por Leicester City.

El acuerdo de £22million, que fue confirmado en el sitio web oficial del club de Leicester el viernes por la tarde, sigue siendo objeto de una autorización internacional.

Pero FIFA dice que no recibió los documentos antes de la fecha limite para comprar jugadores este verano, pero el club de la Premier League va a contestar el veredicto.

Un portavoz de FIFA dijo este miércoles: “Podemos confirmar que hemos estado contactado por la FA en relación con el registro del jugador Adrien Silva y Leicester City.

“FIFA ha respondido en consecuencia indicando las normas aplicables. Póngase en contacto con la FA para obtener más información.”

Silva ya fue en Leicester el jueves pasado al borde de completar su traspaso a Los Foxes, pero el papeleo relacionado al jugador llego a FIFA solo 14 segundos después del vencimiento.

Significa que el fichaje se vino abajo a ultimo minuto. En la noche de jueves pasado, Leicester se frustró cada vez mas con el retraso en recibir los documentos de registro de Sporting.

Fueron concedidos mas tiempo – una prolongación de una hora hasta medianoche para completar todos los documentos del fichaje – y oficiales del club todavía están convencido que fueron completado y enviado a FIFA, una cuestión de segundos antes el punto de corte.

Pero el sistema de TMS – que conecta los clubes con la FA, otros organismos internacionales y FIFA – muestra que los documentos lleguen 14 segundos demasiado tarde.

Sporting CP v Fiorentina - Pre-Season Friendly

Ahora, Leicester esta trabajando con Sporting, el jugador Silva y FIFA para resolver la situación – con la intención de convencer el organismo internacional que el fichaje debería ser permitido.

Si la FIFA rechaza el registro, el traspaso de Silva se derrumbe, el jugador permanezca a Sporting y Leicester no pague nada por su servicios.

Lo mas probable es que Silva va a unirse con Leicester al principio de enero el ano proximo, con la reapertura del mercado de fichajes.

Wayne Rooney’s honeymoon at Everton is over. The holiday glow has faded but Ronald Koeman must now act ruthlessly

Ronald Koeman’s message must be clear: One more misdemeanour and you are out at Everton.

Wayne Rooney’s private life has been spread all over the front and back pages of the newspapers over the weekend, due to his drink-drive charge and everything else that came with it.

Another remarkable night out in Cheshire, after the start to the season he’s had – scoring twice in his first two Premier League games for Everton, is this the Rooney the supporters will have to learn to accept?

The honeymoon period is over; the holiday glow is now replaced by the redness of his cheeks from another intoxicating all-night bender from the Bubble Room in Alderley Edge to the Symposium cocktail bar in Wilmslow.


This is the self-destructive streak in him: a man that has lived on the edge to get to where he is today, in need of a release from the pressure of being Wayne Rooney. But he is also the father of three who is clearly ill-advised and keeps the wrong company.

This should be the first international window in a long time that we’re not talking about the former England captain, and yet here we are on the day Gareth Southgate’s men hope to move ever closer to Russia with victory over Slovakia: talking about Wayne Rooney.

The latest sorry episode has flared up and prompted a certain amount of dismay within the Rooney household, but also at Everton.

Ronald Koeman is probably wondering now what he’s let himself in for by bringing him back. It’s depressingly sad, weeks after he looked revived from a move back to his boyhood club. Fifty-three days later, it’s all gone wrong already.

Rooney now faces the prospect of a court appearance just 24 hours after his return to face Manchester United at Old Trafford. What state of mind will he be in for that? It’s a self-inflicted mess.

The emotional bond Evertonians have for Rooney will not wash for long should he continue to transgress after a big investment was placed in him, a decade after his peak.

After years being in the spotlight, and criticised for his waning powers towards the end of his time at United, the one big hope for fans at Goodison Park was that the local lad had learned to act like the consummate professional, stung by past transgressions such as his wedding appearance at the England team hotel last October.

A figure that had established himself as a record goalscorer for England and United, a captain, Koeman didn’t for one moment believe he was bringing back the tearaway teenager of 2004 but a man who could inspire those around him to have not won the Champions League medal he has in his cabinet.

Rooney was supposed to be wiser, as well as leaner from intense spinning classes following his return from Ibiza.

But no sooner has the first international break arrived, that Rooney is in the dock again. The self-destructive element is still there. What might he have achieved had he not had this laddish tendency?

Perhaps not quite the honours of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The records and the achievements are great, but could he have achieved more? Quite possibly.

Wayne Rooney celebrates his goal making it 1-0. Premier League:

Kevin Mirallas was left out of the Everton squad to face Chelsea before the international break due to his attitude, not due to talk of a transfer back to Olympiacos. With no striker bought to replace Romelu Lukaku, Koeman has very little option.

England have had problems over the years with players refuelling, with the nation unable to reproduce the form seen at club level, but Everton cannot afford this.

The public were scathing of the media when pictures emerged of Rooney enjoying drinks at a wedding reception after the win over Scotland, even though the pictures were taken by another member of the public.

There were calls to ‘give Rooney a break’. But as much as we love Rooney, we cannot condone the potential breaking of the law.

What good could transfer listing the player, fining him two weeks wages, or dropping him do? Koeman won’t have been impressed, but as he returns from a long weekend on holiday with his family, will he be surprised?

Rooney had his boxing bout in his kitchen, among other scraps, so this is hardly likely to be a knockout blow barely a month into the season, but the fear for Rooney the man is that when he does choose to hang up his boots, what path shall he take.

He has spoken of a desire to manage England one day, but there’s been other incidents no doubt that haven’t made the papers. Rooney has done a good job to detach those off-field issues given his records. No-one is perfect, but it is so apparent that Rooney isn’t.

The striker opted to call time on his international career citing a desire to focus on Everton, believing he could get another three years at the highest level out of his legs.

But if he’s going to do that, he will have to look at the way he conducts himself off the pitch. The era of when players drink in excess no doubt still exists, but nowhere near like it used to.

There will certainly have been players from League One and League Two clubs on Saturday night who enjoyed themselves whatever the result.

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But there’s also a wave of youngsters coming through at lower level who are teetotal, aware of the pitfalls and the rewards further down the line that might await.

Rooney is 31. He knows the game, he’s lived through it, and has been left behind. The role model debate rears its head again.

They are those held up to a higher standard, and if Everton wanted to sign Rooney for commercial reasons as much as anything else, he is the face of a club that has in turn been tarnished.

He is the self-proclaimed poster boy, and he has been representative of the local hero done good ever since he made his senior debut for the club, against Tottenham – the side he is in line to face in his first public appearance since his charge this Saturday.

Will the rest of the Everton squad welcome him upon the first training session following the international break?

Of course they will. And that’s the truth. There will be an acceptance perhaps of double standards when it comes to Rooney when he should only be the exception based on what he has achieved compared to his team-mates.

He’s a different breed, when he should be treated no different to how Mirallas was, dropped for his attitude, right down to a member of David Unsworth’s Under 23s squad.

You wonder about Rooney’s legacy: Will he be remembered for his goals or the lurid headlines? Yet he remains a popular figure with the nation willing him to do well.

Football Soccer - Premier League - Everton vs Stoke City - Liver

Just witness the outpouring of delight from neutrals who felt Rooney’s emotion when he scored on his home return against Stoke, seeing how much it meant to him in his celebrations.

The flawed genius of the man is something that has come with the territory, but while Rooney was disposable at United, he should not take his importance to Everton for granted.

While there is ongoing and live court proceedings Everton are not likely to fine Rooney for risk of pre-judging any trial outcome.

But while no external punishment may be forthcoming until after the verdict, the club have already been placed in an embarrassing situation. Dropping him against Spurs would send out a clear message.

Redemption night as Everton flex their muscles to derail Arsenal’s title bid



Arsenal hadn’t lost a league game since the opening day of the season. They had only lost once away this calendar year in the Premier League. They had just one defeat in 18 league games against Everton.

Few had given the hosts hope of only a second win in 12 games in all competitions after a desperately poor performance in the 3-2 loss at Watford four days ago, especially after a nervous opening 20 minutes saw them fall behind to Alexis Sanchez’s opener.

But the spirit that has now seen them claw back 11 points from losing positions  – more than any other Premier League side this season – has been somewhat disguised by the results of the past three months.

“There won’t always be games with a Cup final feel to it,” Alan Stubbs rightly pointed out in the BT Sport studio following a ferocious show of character that lifted the side back up to seventh in the table.


Seamus Coleman typified such a never-say-die attitude, dragging the side level with a well-placed header, screaming at his team-mates down the right throughout, reminiscent of the role played by Phil Neville for many years.

Ashley Williams had quite a night. From villain of the piece to match winner. But he was not alone in needing to put right the many wrongs during a woeful run of form.

Actions speak louder than words, and after Koeman had his Wikipedia picture changed to Pat Butcher in the hours leading up to the game, this was his ‘F*** You’ to those dissenters.

Questions of mental and physical fragility asked by Koeman himself were emphatically put to bed here. There’s no need for an inquest after the final 70 minutes of blood and thunder that added this to the pantheon of great Goodison nights.


“It was very difficult – you know the qualities of Arsenal,” the Dutchman said immediately after a thrilling 2-1 victory over Arsene Wenger’s side. “We had the sending off of Jags in the final minute and we were lucky with the last challenge in the box, but you need that in life.

“You can as a manager tell the players what needs to change, but if you start as we did today, you won’t win any games in the Premier League. We were very nervous, but if we fight for every ball and if we’re aggressive you can see the reaction of the crowd.

“We went face to face, and with a lot of aggression you can make it very difficult. We deserved the win today. We showed after 20 minutes how we need to play, the commitment and aggression was there and the crowd reacted. It’s a big result.”

Williams gestured a heart with his fingers as he looked towards the box where his family watched on as he celebrated his goal, a reminder of the ‘Together Stronger’ slogan that took Wales to the last four of Euro 2016.

Coleman called on the fans to remain with the players now after such a morale-boosting win heading into the Merseyside derby next Monday night.


“A lot of teams would’ve given up after going a goal down, and you could sense the crowd getting a little on our back,’ he said.

“But we got the next goal and we know that if we put in a performance we can make the crowd happy and they are like a 12th man so it’s important that we get them right behind us and for them to stay with us.”

Thirty seconds into this contest, James McCarthy went in late on Granit Xhaka. More aggressive, more compact and more fight. This was the midfielder making his intentions known from the off.

Despite McCarthy’s best efforts, the first 20 minutes belonged to Arsenal. Everton sat back, looked to be compact and allowed their opponents to play in front of them. Co-commentator Steve McManaman on BT Sport called it ‘playing with fire’.


This was quite clearly Koeman’s game plan, hoping to pick Arsenal off on the break with the speed and directness of Valencia and Lennon.

What wasn’t drilled on the training ground was the suicidal minute of madness which led to Arsenal taking the lead.

Three Everton players had the chance to clear, as Enner Valencia, Ross Barkley and Williams were guilty of sloppiness in possession. Idrissa Gueye ended up being clattered by Williams in the self-inflicted chaos on the edge of the penalty area.

Phil Jagielka was the man to eventually halt Arsenal in their tracks, taking out Sanchez, but the Chilean then ensured he did not escape with just a yellow card.

His free-kick was hit low but Williams, lacking mobility with his hands behind his back, compounded his error as he tried his best to adjust his feet, only managing to deflect the ball into the net via the hand the diving Maarten Stekelenburg after it had skidded off his shins.

The groans came back, balls that could have been crossed by both Barkley and Valencia ended back at the feet of an Arsenal player, Aaron Lennon shot when a pass was on for the Ecuadorian.


But Everton slowly shook off the blow to an already low level of confidence as Coleman rode forward to win a corner, which was flashed over by the involved Valencia.

The crowd responded to a flurry of tackles that rattled into Xhaka and Co, Lennon being released down the left, carrying the ball into the box. But he shot over with his weaker left foot. Again no end product.

Everton were getting some joy down the left, Baines stayed on his feet as both Theo Walcott and Hector Bellerin dangled then withdrew a leg. Lukaku urged his team-mates to squeeze with him from the front. The Gwladys Street roared their approval.

The fans showed further appreciation as Barkley pick-pocketed Coquelin before slipping in Lukaku down the left but he hurried his shot. Petr Cech still hadn’t had a save to make.

Arsenal had shown ruthlessness at Everton’s moment of uncertainty but Everton didn’t show such a clinical side when Nacho Monreal miscued his clearance. Lennon prodded his shot wide of the mark again after being teed up by McCarthy.


The Wigan midfielder, in front of the watching Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, looked as though he was playing for his future, winning the ball high up, snapping into another challenge on Francis Coquelin to go into Mark Clattenburg’s book.

For all of Everton’s endeavour, Arsenal absorbed everything that had been thrown at them until they were breached in remarkably easy fashion.

Gueye picked up Barkley’s pass and again looked down the left with the always available Baines. Walcott raced across to shut down the space, but couldn’t slow down quick enough, his momentum inviting the full-back inside onto his right.

Baines produced the perfect inswinging cross for Coleman to cushion his header down low into the corner past the rooted Cech. From one full-back to another, two players criticised defensively this season showed battling qualities to drag their side back into the contest.


Wenger wore a concerned face to go with his tailored winter coat, and the Frenchman was happy to hear the half-time whistle as the players had to be separated following a bit of afters between Coleman and the peripheral Mesut Ozil.

Even the bouncing Everton first-team coach Duncan Ferguson, still playing in his head and in his Copa Mundials, intervened to help pull the players apart as they headed down the narrow tunnel into the changing rooms. It was then you felt this would be one of those nights.

Into the second period, Everton’s press was evident again from the start, but Sanchez began to assert himself as Arsenal enjoyed an early spate of possession with the hosts sitting in and snapping when the ball broke loose on the slick surface.

Everton were guilty of again failing to clear when Jagielka had the chance, looking to play out through Gueye – Arsenal almost made them pay with Sanchez finding the onrushing Ozil who stroked his ball over when he looked set to score.

Everton were next to go close. Jagielka’s directness this time almost paid dividends, finding the chest of Lukaku whose lay-off to Barkley was flashed just wide of Cech’s left-hand post from the angle.


But chasing the win they needed to return back to the summit, Wenger urged his players to go up the gears and frantic moments around the box saw Coquelin and Sanchez both denied by last-ditch clearances.

Koeman looked to fresh legs as Kevin Mirallas replaced Lennon, applauded off after a far better showing than in his recent starts. The Goodison crowd roared again as Lukaku won a foot race with Gabriel and Valencia ran himself into the ground to chase another lost cause.

Everton had found a second wind from somewhere but no one was on hand to run onto a loose ball inside the six-yard box after Barkley had outsmarted Sanchez. Arsenal’s defending was becoming increasingly desperate.

Coleman was next to test their resolve as his cross was snuffed out by the impressive Laurent Koscielny after another tepid ball out from the back by Arsenal had been intercepted.


Into the final 15 minutes, could Arsenal find a way of winning ugly as Chelsea had done against West Brom? Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud but Koeman looked to youth, calling back England under-20 international Dominic Calvert-Lewin to get ready.

With the home crowd beginning to get nervous, the introduction of debutant Calvert-Lewin for the tireless Valencia received a standing ovation. Another talented local boy was thrown into the bowels of the famous bear pit.

It was a masterstroke from Koeman just at the moment the home side needed another lift to go again for the final 10 minutes as the 19-year-old took his place behind Lukaku.

Everton had to be careful not to over commit, but with the exuberance of Calvert-Lewin quickly involved, this was never likely to be a case of two sides settling for a point.

The striker took a one-two off the excellent Gueye and then won a corner from another Baines delivery. Who said Koeman didn’t look to academy players? This was precisely what the fans had been crying out for.

Everton got their heads down, harnessed the passion of the crowd and won another corner.

Barkley this time beat the first man, with the ball falling to Jagielka but Cech managed to claw the shot around the post. Any sense that the danger had been averted, however, was short-lived as Barkley had now, finally, found his range.

Redemption comes in many forms, and Barkley’s positive response to being taken out of the side was given its crowning moment from the ensuing delivery, as Williams rose unmarked to crash his header off the ground and high into the roof of the net.


The towering Wales captain ran the length of the field, along the side of the Main Stand passing Ferguson on his way, who had done the same memorably for his first goal against Liverpool and twice against Manchester United in his prime.

Coleman eventually caught up with the impassioned centre-half, holding him down as Calvert-Lewin jumped on his back and Gueye was close behind. Lukaku jumped on board while McCarthy was there to give him the final thunderous nod of approval.

It was one huge outpouring of emotion that was mirrored by the usually composed Koeman on the sidelines, heading an imaginary ball as Williams rose before removing his hands from his pockets to celebrate it hitting the net with an almighty fist pump.

The passion in the celebrations said everything. This was Everton’s night. The fans responded with a chorus of songs, how they had suffered for this, but there were still four minutes plus stoppages to hold on.


Stekelenburg frantically claimed a teasing ball from Sanchez before McCarthy was replaced by Ramiro Funes Mori as Koeman looked to batten down the hatches.

Barkley then exposed the space by running clear down the right but he shot when a ball was on at the far post. It was a rush of blood to the head when both Mirallas and Calvert-Lewin were on for the pass.

It may well have proved costly as after a corner down the other end wasn’t cleared, Jagielka was caught the wrong side of substitute Lucas Perez and was rightly shown a second yellow card.

The veteran ruled himself out of the home clash with Liverpool in the process, but Everton’s concerns were more immediate as with the side one player short for the final minute of stoppage time, Arsenal had a glorious chance to snatch a point.


Twice they were thwarted by last ditch blocks in the same incredible phase of play as both Monreal and Alex Iwobi had shots blocked, first by Funes Mori and then Leighton Baines on the goal-line.

The ball broke loose, and Mirallas may well have brought down Sanchez who had come up his blind side to pinch the ball, but Clattenburg allowed play to go on.

After his role in a Merseyside derby in 2007 – a 2-1 win for Liverpool in which he awarded the Reds two penalties and failed to give one for Everton led to six years without him refereeing a game at Goodison – some would say this too was a night of redemption for him.

Everton could still have scored a third with Cech stranded up the pitch in pursuit of the equaliser, but neither Barkley nor Mirallas could get a shot away. It was a breathless end to the game as Everton held on.


Williams slunk to the ground in exhaustion at the final whistle, brought back to his feet by Stekelenburg as Baines was lifted in the air by Coleman and Gueye, never far from anything.

The players had responded to Koeman’s comments after the hapless showing in Hertfordshire, this was him planting his flag in the sand.

Williams could reflect on an eventful night. “It’s nice to get my first goal, I’m obviously disappointed with their goal, so it’s great to get the winner in the end. I was desperate to score to make up for it. It gives us a massive confidence boost.

“It was about looking at ourselves in the mirror, and looking to put it right. We fell behind but we battled back and the fans responded as well. Next week is a massive game, and it’s great we can take this into the derby.”


Coleman admitted after another famous night under the lights: “We’ve been nowhere near good enough, but the only place to put it right is back on the football pitch. We know that our form has not been good enough and there were some nerves.”

After some strong criticism from supporters who had already begun to question their new manager, this was a major step in the right direction for Koeman leading into the festive fixture pile up.

“Liverpool will be a total situation after tonight,” he said. “We go into it on the back of a good performance with three points in the pocket.

“We’re still unbeaten at home, and we know the importance of the Merseyside derby. If we play with the passion we showed tonight, we can have a good result.”











‘I love Lionel Messi and he loves me,’ says Afghan carrier bag youngster who receives Argentina shirt signed by Barcelona star


The Afghan boy who pulled at our heartstrings wearing a bin bag bearing Lionel Messi’s famous number in a picture that went viral has now received the ultimate gift from his footballing idol.

Having become an online sensation last month for wearing an impoverished version of the Argentina star’s jersey, the five-year-old boy has received the real thing, signed by the player himself.

In a tale that shows the power of social media, Murtaza Ahmadi was all smiles as he proudly wore his new shirt delivered by Messi’s management team to his family in the Jaghori District, in the eastern Ghazni province of Afghanistan.

‘I love Messi and my shirt says Messi loves me,’ said a beaming Murtaza on Thursday.  Messi has been crowned the Ballon d’or winner on five separate occasions, but it was little Murtaza who woke up feeling top of the world as he eagerly sported the latest Argentina home shirt in preparation for a kick-about.

It is a truly heart-warming story, which came into public awareness after the boy’s elder brother Homayoun, 15, made him the plastic shirt with Messi’s named scrawled in marker pen and posted photos of Murtaza wearing it on Facebook.


Messi’s biggest fan will no doubt be aware of the maestro’s two goals in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 clash with Arsenal on Tuesday night, and Murtaza celebrated his achievement in the best possible fashion.

Earlier this month, the Afghan Football Federation said that it was planning to set up a meeting between 28-year-old Messi and the youngster.

The federation’s spokesman, Sayed Ali Kazemi said  that officials hope Messi can come to Afghanistan to visit the boy, but otherwise they will arrange to send him to Spain, or arrange a meeting in a third country.

According to Arif Ahmadi, Murtaza’s father, the love affair started when Murtaza watched Messi playing on television in his family home, which only has solar power.

It tugged on the heart strings of football fans around the world, prompting the social media hunt that eventually identified Murtaza as the little boy with the ‘saddest football shirt in the world’.

Sport was rarely played under Taliban rule, and the football stadium in Kabul was a notorious venue for executions, stonings and mutilations.

Football and cricket are the two most popular sports in the war-ravaged country

Everton have lost their ‘top six’ status… whatever this is isn’t good enough


There will be few Everton supporters who could argue they didn’t see a result like this coming. Swansea brought the perfect game plan, they will say, but the battle to stifle the Goodison Park crowd is becoming less of an issue with each passing wayward performance, and if there’s one place you’ll be given chances to score it’s at Everton.

Twelve months ago, the Toffees were 12th after 22 games. While six points better off, the side occupies the same position in the league at the same stage this term. But the concerns have been widely discussed for well over a year now.

The fears of losing the likes of John Stones and Romelu Lukaku, while wildly and rather crassly speculated by newspapers each passing Sunday, would seem an inevitability. The need to sugarcoat these stories will become redundant.

The saddest thing, as Anthony Taylor generously gave Everton the chance to redeem themselves with an additional ‘last play’ in the 2-1 defeat by Swansea, was that many of those in attendance had accepted their fate.

It is something of a Toffees trait to score late on, especially over the years at Goodison while more recently on the road, but the sense of despondency that will have eaten away at home fans in the second-half was due to an overwhelming feeling that this was quite simply a ‘must win’.


There will be those who will not care for the Premier League this season – who’ll be wetting their whistle for the club’s biggest game in four years against Manchester City on Wednesday night – but that’s not good enough for a side who have chronically under-achieved; it’s never been good enough to snub the bread and butter of league points.

After a brief response from the hosts that lasted all of five minutes at the start of the second period, Swansea rediscovered their poise, with two white sheets of four brilliantly marshalled by captain Ashley Williams.

The grit and desire shown by the players out to impress new head coach Francesco Guidolin was every bit as stark as the growing apathy among Evertonians towards joining the rump of teams fighting for Europe through the league.

There were boos at half-time. There was a brief cry of urgency midway through the second-half. And at full-time, there were groans. The point was made several times over in the matchday programme notes how the side ought to have won last week at Stamford Bridge, and how much rosier the situation should be.


But it’s time a bigger point was made of those Everton supporters who attend home games. Too many add nothing positive. They are a burden on the team rather than the twelfth man. They have no right to expect victory over a Swansea side battling for their lives. In contrast, the decibel levels at the Emirates, of all places, on Sunday was alarming.

Neutrals welcome Everton in this disorderly season. They provide wonderful lessons to aspiring young footballers on how not to see out games, but equally they have always fought until the end.

Fans of the club, however, would say watching their side comes with a major health warning, and in this most open of Premier League seasons, with any one of the current top 10 capable of putting a run together that could lead to Champions League qualification, languishing in the bottom half is an abomination.

It is not that Everton have collectively under-performed. There have been stellar seasons for the returning Gerard Deulofeu, for the maturing Ross Barkley and for 19-goal top scorer Romelu Lukaku. His performance against Swansea was his worst of the season, though he wasn’t alone.


Given the Belgian’s uncharacteristic lack of fluidity and appetite to give Williams a more troublesome afternoon, you wonder whether he has fully recovered from that ankle injury in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final with City.

Roberto Martinez may feel inclined to see the result as one to draw a line under and swiftly move on. He may point to the handball from Williams in the build-up to Andre Ayew’s winning goal which ought to have been spotted. Then there were the two injuries to Muhamed Besic and Kevin Mirallas in the first-half.

But muscular injuries – which had resulted in the manager not taking any risks with Phil Jagielka on Sunday – have regularly interrupted Everton this term.

Few excuses could be made last season from the point of selection, but the number of innocuous injuries is mounting at Finch Farm. Baines and Coleman – the side’s first choice full-backs have only just become available, while James McCarthy has played 26 minutes in the last two months.


At 33, Jagielka is showing signs of his age, but while the level of caution is something you would expect from Martinez given his bachelor’s degree in physiotherapy, questions must be asked about how the squad is being trained.

With Besic and Mirallas hobbling off and subsequently ruled out for the game on Wednesday, Martinez had limited options to change the dimension of the match after Swansea had stemmed the flow of attacks on the Gwladys Street goal.

Given one of the few similarities he shares with his predecessor is his inability to change things from the sidelines, he will have pondered his final substitution for an additional 10 minutes with little or no extra insight gained.

Whereas before he could look to Steven Naismith, one of the finest examples of how to observe games intelligently from the bench, there was only the out-of-form Arouna Kone as a forward option.

The sale of Naismith, much like Nikica Jelavic despite the pair’s need for more first-team opportunities, has come at the detriment of the club. No replacement has been lined up. Evertonians just know that a deadline day South American unknown is readying his suitcase.

But back to Sunday, and as he stood there arms crossed, two thoughts will have filled his mind: the Spaniard could have brought on Kone for the tiring and out-of-sorts Ross Barkley, and moved the Ivorian closer to Lukaku, allowing Steven Pienaar to operate as is his preference with Leighton Baines.

Or the option he chose, which he no doubt will have had designs of enforcing before kick-off given Bryan Oviedo’s fitness levels and the need for Seamus Coleman to head into the City clash with minutes under his belt following his own injury troubles.

It very almost rescued a point, with Coleman guilty of missing two glaring opportunities – the first horribly dragged after a beautifully disguised pass from Stones, and then the same combination saw the defender flick on Baines’ corner leaving the unmarked Coleman with a simple tap-in. But he skied his shot, and the game was up.


Martinez was impressive in his first year. A record 21 wins from a 38-game season, a fifth-place finish, a strong identity based on possession football with a recruitment strategy focused on developing the stars of tomorrow to boot.

The club was sold the promise of being taken ‘back to where it belongs’ – with Champions League football – in his very first press conference in June 2013, but with him hell-bent on sticking to his principles, there is a feeling now that Everton’s status as a top six or seven side is ebbing away.

There have been other cases in recent times. Just ask fans of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, who have suffered relegation, the likes of Sunderland, Newcastle and Aston Villa whose situations are perilous.

However bad Manchester United have become since the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, they will never lose their status as one of the big clubs. Of course, they will look on enviously at the goings-on at their neighbours and try to emulate their youth development project. But Everton’s status in the top echelons of the top flight, is in real danger.

If the club were to sign a new goalkeeper, to put Tim Howard out of his misery, of what calibre would he exactly be? What’s the expectation of fans? Jack Butland? Do me a favour. Even Liverpool just offered Simon Mignolet a new five-year deal.

With the scores level on Sunday, Howard’s catch from a routine cross was greeted with sarcastic cheers. It was not the first time the American has been subjected to such lowbrow irony from his own supporters.

Any crumb of momentum that had been built after Gareth Barry’s deflected equaliser was lost with those jeers. It transcended onto the pitch and into the minds of the players.

But solving the goalkeeping issue at Goodison is just one of the problems. Goodison simply just isn’t up to scratch, as a home ground in a league where creating a bear-pit for clubs less economically privileged is essential. It’s lost any sense of fear-factor carried over from the David Moyes years.

Fortress Goodison was a thing under Moyes. Under the lights, there were big victories over United in 2005, in the FA Cup against Liverpool in 2009 and several times against City and Chelsea. But since the start of last season, Everton have won 10 out of 31 games at the famous old ground.

You sense visiting the place that the residents are just waiting for something to happen, not only on the pitch, but also in the boardroom.


Then there’s John Stones. The type of error that nearly came from over-playing against Tottenham in his own six-yard box manifested itself leading up to Swansea’s first goal. A sloppy, under-cooked back-pass had Howard flinging a foot at Ayew.

There was only one outcome, Gylfi Sigurdsson dispatching a fourth penalty for a visiting side to Goodison in the last four League games – with all of them having a direct impact on the result. While Howard perhaps ought to have used his footballing intelligence to withdraw his leg, this was Stones’ doing.

It is not the first time he has been punished for a lackadaisical piece of defending in his own area. While he was slightly unfortunate with the crucial penalty awarded against him in the 4-3 defeat to Stoke last month, it was a risky challenge, and his form has undoubtedly dipped with speculation over his future.

Stones handed in a transfer request last summer, but the club stood firm resolutely believing him to be the jewel in the crown, and the player around which the side could be built. But now he appears to have had his head turned.

His body language, and call to home fans to ‘calm down’, are suggestive of a man who is counting down the days to his departure. Stones is now a luxury item that is in danger of becoming academic to the club’s future, and rather a pathway to the kind of investment Martinez has done little to warrant, given that this is no longer a squad he can say he’s inherited.

The issue of quite what Everton would do with £60million for either Stones or Lukaku, or for both, would fill Blues supporters with a sense of foreboding rather than excitement. It is not a subject for today, but given the predictability of this defeat at home to Swansea, it is a prospect that is looming larger than ever.

The night Muhamed Besic provided his Marouane Fellaini moment for Everton


There is renewed optimism around the famous old ground. The sense of panic was snowballing in the terraces following back-to-back home defeats either side of Christmas, but after an encouraging draw against an in-form Tottenham, here was the huge win the fans have so desperately craved.

Goodison under the lights is known for its aura, but the locals have become restless in recent times. For all Romelu Lukaku’s brilliance in leading the line this term, so few of his team-mates have followed his example and so few of his goals have led to tangible success.

Lukaku was again relied upon to hand Everton the advantage in the Capital One Cup semi-final with Manchester City, getting on the end of Gareth Barry’s cross to nod past Willy Caballero despite having already picked up an ankle knock.


But it was a night when the good side of Goodison shone, as Barry had hoped for with his pre-match call to arms.

The decision to stick with Joel Robles in goal for the first leg may have had something to do with this, but the selection of Muhamed Besic provided the side with an inner steel that has been lacking.

There has been frustrations over the fitness of James McCarthy, who was rushed back too soon from a hip injury, and Tom Cleverley – whose calf problems reared themselves again in the first-half – but Besic has taken his opportunity.


The midfielder made twice as many tackles as the rest of Everton combined in the first-half, helping disrupt City’s creative powerhouse Yaya Toure and launch counter-attacks with possession won.

Evertonians are knowledgable watchers of their side, and the appreciation for Besic – whose stats of six tackles, five dribbles, two shots and 58 passes reflect the completeness of his performance – was shown in him winning 60 per cent of the vote for man of the match on social media.

There was a sense among Everton fans against Stoke, with the side 3-2 in front heading into the final 15 minutes, that had David Moyes still been in charge the Blues would’ve seen out the game having tightened up the midfield.


Besic remained on the bench as he watched Mark Hughes’ side stage a dramatic late comeback, with Steven Naismith, Romelu Lukaku, Arouna Kone and Gerard Deulofeu all remaining on the pitch.

In the week leading up to Spurs last Sunday, I was convinced the Bosnian should’ve started. He has been made to bide his time since his £4million arrival from Hungarian side Ferencvaros in July 2014, but with the side leaking more goals at home than anyone else, this was his time.

The opening 45 minutes against Mauricio Pochettino’s side was every bit as one-sided as Everton’s dominant display before the interval against Norwich a few weeks’ ago, but Martinez didn’t address this at half-time regardless of Dele Alli’s equaliser so close to the interval.


Just as Besic ought to have been introduced for either McCarthy or Cleverley against Stoke, his energetic and tenacious playing style was what the Blues were devoid of against Spurs until his introduction on the hour-mark.

Besic hasn’t looked back. Whether by accident or design, Martinez has opened up a can of tattoo clad frustration.

Hugo Lloris made a flying save to deny an exquisite volley that would’ve raised the roof of the Gwladys Street, but the manner he helped take the game away from a rampant Spurs was every bit as impressive.


Besic’s skill in the centre-circle to move away from David Silva last night would not have been out of place on the training fields of Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane these days, but it brought back memories of another fine midweek victory over City.

The drag-back to set up another Everton attack was reminiscent of Marouane Fellaini’s pirouette on Craig Bellamy in the 2-0 win over the Citizens six years ago, and comparisons can be made between the two midfielders.

Fellaini became a fans’ favourite for his curly hair and impassioned goal celebrations, but it was that moment of skill that many Evertonians remember as an act that demonstrated a point had been turned for the Belgian on Merseyside after questions had previously been asked over the £15million signing.


Besic was brought to Finch Farm for considerably less but with a reputation for having performed so well against Lionel Messi at the World Cup, despite being unable to prevent the Barcelona player from scoring a wondrous goal in the group stage game at the Maracana.

The 23-year-old made the worst possible start to life at Goodison when he tried to be too clever in a dangerous part of the pitch, minutes into his debut against Chelsea at the start of last season.

His costly mistake led to Diego’s Costa wrapping up a heavy 6-3 defeat – a jolt to the Blues’ pre-season objective of a top-four finish which in truth Everton never really recovered from.


Despite the error, Evertonians have taken to the German-born Bosnian, and the manner in which he operated in the three with Barry and the brilliant Ross Barkley – most crucially in the final six minutes with the side reduced to 10 men – was quite superb.

Martinez’s desperation to rush McCarthy back from injury is understandable given the side have won once in seven league games in his absence, but after the Spaniard’s glowing assessment of Barry’s renaissance this season, the opportunity is there for Besic to stake a claim for a regular place. He’s made the best possible start.