Everton striker Romelu Lukaku scored a stoppage-time equaliser in last night’s FA Cup tie with West Ham to ease some of the mounting pressure on his manager Roberto Martinez.
The Belgium striker’s smart turn and finish — his fourth goal in as many matches for the Toffees against the Hammers — earned a 1-1 draw and at the very least postponed another inquest into what is going wrong at Goodison Park.
Martinez said: “I’m very, very pleased, I’m proud of the character. It wasn’t an easy game once you concede a goal and it would have been a crime if we’d gone out of the cup just by a dead-ball situation.
“I’m more pleased than anything with the character, with the reaction that we showed, the never-give-up attitude. In the middle of a period where we are low in confidence, it was a phenomenal reaction and it could easily be a turning point in our season.”
Lukaku’s first in seven matches ended a four-game losing streak and ensured they live to fight another day in the competition after James Collins’ 56th-minute header had exposed the Toffees’ defensive Achilles heel — only QPR have conceded more in the Premier League this season.
Prior to Lukaku’s intervention, West Ham were on the verge of their first victory in 15 attempts since 2007 against their perennial bogey side.
Everton’s current figures do not make for much better reading. They have won just once in the last 10 matches and their last clean sheet came against Europa League opponents Wolfsburg in late November immediately prior to their current slump.
The goal was the least Lukaku, in his first start in three matches, deserved.
It looked like the rest had done him some good as he twice forced Adrian to fumble shots, the West Ham goalkeeper recovering once to deny Kevin Mirallas on the rebound and then being bailed out by Winston Reid.
The Belgium striker also rolled an effort wide of the far post after he was picked out in the inside-left channel by an eye-of-the-needle pass from Ross Barkley, who appeared to lurch from brilliant to dreadful and back again in the first-half.
Lukaku has been criticised for not playing like a £28 million (€35.6m) striker but he was offering plenty to the team, with his brilliant ball over the top picking out Steven Naismith, who shot from such a narrow angle it beat Adrian but eventually rolled out for a throw.
Seamus Coleman and Mirallas both had efforts before Barkley showed the best and worst bits of his game as a 60-yard drive at the West Ham defence ended with him passing tamely into the path of Reid as he tried to pick out Lukaku.
The visitors were not without their chances with Stewart Downing forcing Joel Robles to tip over and Morgan Amalfitano firing wide.
Everton’s opportunities began to dry up in the second half as, for all Lukaku’s good early play, the side were lacking runners to get beyond him.
The visitors sensed their chance and after defender Carl Jenkinson had driven through the left of Everton’s defence, only to be denied by a good, low near-post save by Robles, they took the lead.
Sylvain Distin, whose scalp did just enough to divert wide Downing’s drive, was partly to blame after losing Collins at the resulting corner but the Wales defender was still allowed to get between Naismith and Muhamed Besic to head in at the near post.
Robles reacted well to tip over Enner Valencia’s header while Lukaku’s own header was ruled out at the other end as he had climbed all over Aaron Cresswell to get to the ball.
Martinez had labelled the match as the most important of their season so the significance of Lukaku pouncing on Bryan Oviedo’s cross late on could not be underestimated.
nIn the other FA Cup tie played last night, Irish duo Eoin Doyle and Jay O’Shea were on the scoresheet as Chesterfield came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 and force a replay.
It was not such a good night for Irish defender John Egan as Gillingham lost 4-2 in the first leg of the Football League Trophy Southern Area final.
EVERTON: Robles, Coleman, Jagielka, Distin (Stones 71), Oviedo, Besic (McGeady 85), Barry, Mirallas (Eto’o 65), Naismith, Barkley, Lukaku.
WEST HAM: Adrian, Jenkinson, Collins, Reid, Cresswell, Noble, Downing, Amalfitano (O’Brien 78), Nolan, Jarvis (Poyet 68), Valencia (Cole 60).
Referee: Anthony Taylor.