Everton 1 Southampton 0
The first day of March saw Everton win their first home game of 2021 and, just like that in this most chaotic and atypical of all Premier League seasons, Richarlison’s goal catapulted Carlo Ancelotti’s team into the thick of the chase for Champions League football.
Who knows? By the end of this Covid-ravaged campaign, it may be Leicester, West Ham, and Ancelotti’s squad filling out the top four behind champions-elect Manchester City. It would not be wise to bet against it, given what we have seen over the opening two-thirds of the campaign.
But for now, here was finally a result that followed the form book as Everton ended their shocking home run and Southampton’s misery, home and away, continued.
Richarlison struck just nine minutes into the game, raising the prospect of another testing evening for a Saints side without a win in eight league games, with just one victory from their previous 13, and with a fairly modest seven-point cushion to the relegation places.
As if proof were needed, the recent nine-goal embarrassment at Manchester United had confirmed that survival is far from a foregone conclusion for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side and the early stages here offered more concerns.
Not least because Southampton proved unable to defend the most routine of long punts forward from Everton keeper Jordan Pickford.
Mohammed Salisu and James Ward-Prowse got in each other’s way as Dominic Calvert-Lewin was allowed to win two headers and Gylfi Sigurdsson played a perfect through ball for Richarlison to chase, round recalled keeper Fraser Forster and stroke the ball into the open net from six yards.
It was just the start Ancelotti needed as his own team looked to recover from indifferent home form that has threatened to undermine what had once looked like a highly promising season.
The new calendar year had seen the Toffees draw one and lose four of their five Goodison league fixtures, form which has contrasted sharply with their football on the road where their last outing, of course, brought that historic derby win at Anfield.
A sorely-needed additional three points should have been wrapped up before the interval here, especially given Southampton’s suicidal tendency to defend with an ultra-high line at a series of Everton set-pieces.
The home team actually had the ball in the goal, from Sigurdsson’s 25th-minute delivery, only for VAR to cancel it out for an offside against Mason Holgate before Michael Keane headed in.
And, in almost identical circumstances, nine minutes before the break, Richarlison timed his run perfectly past the static Saints defence, lined up on the edge of their box, but misconnected with another brilliant ball from Sigurdsson.
But, despite that glaring, gambling weakness, Hasenhuttl’s team weathered a strong Everton start and began to exert pressure of their own as the half wore on.
Calvert-Lewin was required to perform a stunning diving header to clear one of several threatening Ward-Prowse crosses behind his own goal and Ben Godfrey survived a strong penalty shout after tussling with Che Adams.
It had been five years since the Toffees have lost a home league game when leading at half-time and, on the restart, they looked in the mood to remove any danger of that streak ending.
Yet another well-worked free-kick, against yet another high defensive line, saw Keane head across goal and Godfrey’s shot cleared off the line spectacularly by Jannik Vestergaard.
But Salisu headed wide from a corner and, as Saints’ possession increased, so did Everton nerves with Danny Ings increasingly lively. And in a thrilling finale, Pickford made a superb block to deny Vestergaard before mistiming a punch and needing Allan to clear Ings’ effort off the line in the dying seconds.
EVERTON (4-3-1-2): Pickford 7; Holgate 7, Keane 7, Godfrey 6, Digne 6; Doucoure 6, Allan 7, Gomes 6 (Iwobi 87); Sigurdsson 8; Calvert-Lewin 7, Richarlison 7 (King 90).
SOUTHAMPTON (4-4-2): Forster 6; Bednarek 6, Vestergaard 7, Salisu 5 (Tella 62, 5), Bertrand 7; Djenepo 6, Armstrong 7, Ward-Prowse 8, Redmond 7 (Watts 88); Ings 7, Adams 5 (N’Lundulu 77, 6).
Referee: M Atkinson 7