Everton really must have feared all their hard graft was for nothing. That the reward for their discipline and concentration and running and closing would amount to nothing more than a pat on the back.
For 70 minutes an Everton team with an extraordinarily makeshift look fended off Chelsea. They didn’t ride their luck or rely on a goalkeeper making save after save. No, this was controlled and resilient, the perfect execution of a plan.
Then Mason Mount drove a shot past Jordan Pickford and in that moment it felt like Everton hopes had gone up in smoke.
If that was what we suspected, we hadn’t been watching closely enough.
Everton played with belief, here, and weren’t about to give up the ghost.
The admirable Anthony Gordon ran down the left and was fouled by Reece James.
Gordon sent the free-kick deep where Jarrad Branthwaite, making a first Premier League appearance since July 2020, extended his right leg to toe in Everton’s equaliser.
It was Branthwaite’s first goal for the Club. He was thrilled. So, too, the Everton fans, stationed behind the bulging net, who roared on their team all night.
Given a choice, no manager would be rushing to send out 11 players who’d never started together for a game against the European champions.
But that was the hand dealt Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, the Everton boss forced to shuffle a depleted pack for a test that qualifies as one of the hardest on the rota at the best of times.
Benitez, then, would have anticipated his team coming under pressure from the off – and he was right.
Not to the extent most observers might have expected, however.
If the majority of the game was unfolding in the visitors’ territory, then Chelsea were creating half-chances at most.
Everton positioned five players across the back and another four in front of them and, crucially, had the bit between their teeth.
Perhaps Benitez’s players were aware they’d been written off in most quarters pre-match and felt they had a point to prove.
For Branthwaite at the back, meanwhile, this was a night to show he’s ready for regular consideration. When Brainthwaite sped out of defence with the ball at his feet just short of the hour, leaving Jorginho feeling he had no alternative other than a bookable foul, we perhaps had a glimpse into an element of Everton’s future.
Regardless, there was no questioning the collective desire of an Everton team that coupled hard running with elevated concentration levels to shutdown Chelsea’s attacking threats.
James had a chance to add to the scale of Everton’s task when threaded in by Jorginho after six minutes. The Chelsea wing-back lifted his shot wide of Pickford’s near post, however, setting a precedent for the opening half hour.
Pickford wasn’t entirely redundant in that period. He beat out a dipping James free-kick and held comfortably when Christian Pulisic tried a smart backheel following Hakim Ziyech’s spin and surge into the box.
There was a push round the post from an optimistic Ziyech strike on an angle, too, followed by a facile stop from Mount’s low strike.
Chelsea, with Pulisic not entirely comfortable in his ‘false nine’ position, were finding Everton tough going.
Jorginho, the home side’s deep-lying playmaker, routinely lifted his head to be greeted by the sight of two banks of white jerseys.
Room around the edge of Everton’s penalty area was in short supply – who knows what such premium land would cost in these parts – and when Mount wriggled through on 36 minutes, he became the latest first-rate Premier League forward to discover that Pickford is a devil to beat in one-v-ones.
Ellis Simms, on his Everton debut, did his bit to delay Chelsea’s attempts to play out from the back. He did rather well protecting his front post at corners, too.
The wayward Chelsea goal attempts quickly added up. James turned provider to slip in Mount, who sent his shot speeding across Pickford and wide.
Marcos Alonso took his turn on a dead ball when Chelsea were awarded a free-kick soon after James was denied by Pickford. As it turned out, James took aim, nonetheless, Alonso’s strike rebounding off the wall for the England player, who fizzed a drive marginally too high.
Ziyech was off target with a pair of shots, either side of Mason Holgate intervening when Pulisic was poised to convert the ubiquitous James’ low centre.
Edouard Mendy in Chelsea’s goal was worked by Anthony Gordon’s bouncing strike two minutes before the break.
Indeed, with Chelsea increasingly frustrated their 80-ood percent possession was counting for nothing, Everton grew in confidence.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek resorted to illegal means to stop an Abdoulaye Doucoure charge, the Chelsea player’s name joining that of Holgate – punished for a challenge on Ziyech – in the book of referee Michael Oliver.
Pickford sprawled to his left to claw behind a drive from Mount that move through the air six minutes after the restart, Loftus-Cheek diverting Mount’s resultant corner onto the roof of the net.
Everton were an increasingly dangerous proposition on the counter. Gordon led a break that finished with Jonjoe Kenny – on his first Premier League start since 1 November 2020 – sending a rising drive over Mendy’s crossbar.
Mendy held on comfortably at the foot of his post when Ben Godfrey got forward for a shinned effort and, back at the other end, Antonio Rudiger was off target after peeling around the back to meet a James set-piece delivery.
With 20 minutes remaining, Everton cracked. It happens so often, confidence climbs and risks are taken. The away side went forward in relatively big numbers and when possession was turned over, Chelsea exploited space that previously didn’t exist.
James eventually took over deep in Everton’ half to play a pass to Mount on his right. The forward pushed the ball out of his feet and walloped beyond Pickford.
Benitez had been waiting to get Jean-Philippe Gbamin on the pitch and was furious.
His anger didn’t last long. Four minutes to be exact, Branthwaite poking out a leg to score at the back post and spark pandemonium among the Evertonians behind the goal.
Pickford did fabulously to fly across his goal and keep out a Thiago Silva header when substitute Ross Barkley swung in a 79th-minute corner.
And from there, we were back to how it was before, Chelsea probing and searching and running into a giant white wall.
The announcement of five minutes of stoppage time sparked optimism among the locals – but, as they did all night, Everton snuffed out home hope.
Benitez’s Best So Far
Everton defied all manner of ominous portents to produce, surely, the standout result of Rafa Benitez’s embryonic reign.
The standout performance, too? In the circumstances, quite possibly, yes.
A visit to Chelsea is tough enough at the best of times. Jarrad Branthwaite’s goal, for example, was the Club’s first Premier League strike at Stamford Bridge since Ramiro Funes Mori scored in the 90th-minute of a barmy 3-3 draw in January 2016.
You needed to go back more than a quarter of a century, to November 1994, for Everton’s most recent league win in this corner of West London.
Paul Rideout scored the only goal that day as a revitalised Everton began stirring from a slumber.
The Chelsea side encountered by Benitez’s team this evening, however, is a different animal from the one Joe Royle’s Everton got the better of 27 years ago.
A game at Chelsea this season means going to the home of the European champions; a tall enough order without the complication of fitness issues for numerous crucial players.
An injury to Richarlison qualifies as a blow, regardless, but with Dominic Calvert-Lewin already absent, the Brazilian’s unavailability was even more keenly felt prior to the game.
Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend were missing, too.
Chelsea would have been forgiven for licking their lips at the prospect of three points to move back onto the shoulders of Manchester City at the top of the division.
But entertaining such thoughts would have been to reckon without a gritty and incredibly diligent Everton.
The away side denied Chelsea’s playmakers time on the ball, while the hosts’ forwards were frustrated by watchful defending.
Everton took their scoring chance with 16 minutes remaining, answering Benitez’s call for more final-third cutting edge, to complete a consummate away display.
The belief gained from a result of this magnitude is immeasurable. Additionally, the immediate picture is redrawn for the better.
Everton will go to Burnley on Boxing Day aiming to make it seven points from four matches.
This wasn’t only the best result of manager Benitez’s short time at the Club, it was the most vital.
Branthwaite Caps Fabulous Night
Jarrad Branthwaite signed a new long-term deal with the Club this month and immediately declared his intention to claim a First-Team place.
Given his first start Premier League start for 17 months, Branthwaite began the process of making good on his wish.
The 19-year-old was rock solid on the left of Everton’s back three, undaunted by the collection of illustrious names populating the hosts’ attack.
Branthwaite played with a maturity that belied his years, measuring his challenges, covering and tracking runs.
Jorginho, Chelsea’s European Championship-winning midfielder, resorted to a crude trip to halt Branthwaite’s second-half burst out of defence with the ball at his feet.
In common with his teammates, the teenager must have wondered if all the hard work was for nothing when Mount broke through.
But when Anthony Gordon – another Everton youngster to deliver an outstanding display – swung in a set-piece, Branthwaite gleefully pounced for his first goal for the Club.
Branthwaite’s teammates made a beeline for the giant defender at full-time.
He’d earned every kind word and slap on the back.
Injury Issues Overcome
Rafa Benitez is contending with an injury list that is surely unprecedented at Goodison Park.
You need only consider the front three missing here to understand the spartan resources available to the Everton manager right now.
It isn’t stretching it to say that Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and Demarai Gray would claim a place in most Premier League teams.
Everton were a serious attacking proposition when that trio operated in tandem with Andros Townsend at the outset of this campaign.
Benitez’s team scored an average 2.5 goals per game in their opening four Premier League matches.
That rate inevitably slowed as Everton lost players to injury and there is no escaping the goals have dried up of late.
Any successful team is moulded from a solid base, however, and Benitez recently rued costly mistakes.
As recently as four days ago at Crystal Palace in fact.
To come to Chelsea deprived of players all over the pitch and suffocate a side that had scored 38 goals in 16 Premier League games prior to this evening was some going.
Benitez was furious when his side finally erred but the response was compelling.
Everton take home only one point for this tremendous effort in adversity and stay 14th in the Premier League standings.
The lasting effects of a stellar performance and result against the odds, however, could be worth their weight in gold.