Anyone who witnessed Everton chasing shadows for 45 minutes against Tottenham on Sunday would struggle to make a case for them beating Manchester City over 90, just three days later. Indeed, so enduring was the memory of the Londoners’ dominance in that opening period, a much-improved second half display from the Toffees remains very much a sidenote.
Yet out of that early adversity maybe came the clarity that leads to greater conviction here. Roberto Martinez switched to 4-3-3 at the interval and he can be under no illusions that the shape is much more reliable than the default 4-2-3-1 against opposition that dominate possession, as City almost certainly will. Not only are Everton more cohesive defensively, but Ross Barkley is given greater licence to improvise as one of the forward three. It basically kills two birds with one stone.
The point has already been made in the Stoke v Liverpool preview that, in the semi-finals of this competition, underdogs traditionally fare well in first legs on home soil. Over the past ten seasons, 11 teams (not including Stoke) have started the outbound journey as outsiders and seven of them have copped over the initial 90 minutes, albeit only four of them holding out to progress in the return.
The psychology is simple: underdogs see the first (home) game as a final in itself, they don’t even look beyond that initial 90 minutes, and take a no-holds-barred approach. The visitors, knowing they have the fallback of a second chance on home turf, invariably find themselves caught between two stools, in terms of both tactics and team selection.
Any such dilemma where City are concerned is likely to present a problem because, even at full tilt, they have been coming up short on the road lately. In their past six away games, Manuel Pellegrini’s men have hit the target just 19 times, which is way below their usual 6.5 per game average. Coming from 92 attempts on goal, it illustrates just how short on ideas they’ve been, their on-target average dropping from one in every 2.68 attempts to one in every 4.84.
That’s not to say they don’t retain the capacity to dig themselves out of a hole with moments of brilliance, such as those served up by Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero at Watford on Saturday, but when you remain unconvinced by the overwhelming majority of the evidence to hand, the decision to side with the Toffees at 11/4 is a much easier one to make.
Once again, the influence of the away goals rule is being overplayed. Martinez won’t be giving a second thought to the potential importance of goals in extra time at the Etihad, Everton’s priority will simply be to try and take some sort of lead across the M62 three weeks from now.
For more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system, follow this link.