Everton took a 2-1 lead in their Capital One Cup semi-final against Manchester City, after Romelu Lukaku netted the winner in the first leg at Goodison Park on Wednesday night.
Ramiro Funes Mori put Everton ahead before Jesus Navas grabbed a second-half equaliser for City. That was the cue for free-scoring talisman Lukaku to be the hero.
Toffees boss Roberto Martinez stocked his midfield with holding players Gareth Barry and the gifted Muhamed Besic. The club's Twitter provided the starting XI:
City gaffer Manuel Pellegrini opted for a similar lineup. He put Fabian Delph in the middle alongside Fernandinho and Yaya Toure, according to the Citizens' Twitter:
A lively first half saw Everton have two goals disallowed because of offside. Centre-back John Stones and striker Lukaku were both left to rue the linesman's flag.
But it was Stones' fellow central defender, Funes Mori, who struck the one that counted for the hosts. He rifled past Willy Caballero just prior to the break.
It was a good omen for the Toffees, as Sky Sports Statto noted:
Everton lead through Ramiro Funes Mori - are unbeaten in the last 17 games when scoring the 1st goal, winning 12 pic.twitter.com/Q8TOdSh4vt— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) January 6, 2016
What the goal really guaranteed was an open second half. So it proved.
Everton were still impressive, especially Besic. He kept Toure quiet and afforded Ross Barkley the freedom to torment City's shaky back four.
But City gradually exerted their own pressure. Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne both went close. Generally, though, the away side weren't too sharp and imaginative in the final third, a problem identified earlier by Stuart Brennan of the Manchester Evening News:
#MCFC need inspiration. They look dull and a tad clueless going forward. Kelechi?— Stuart Brennan (@StuBrennanMEN) January 6, 2016
Just as things seemed doomed for the 2014 winners, though, City struck with lightning-quick and ruthless efficiency. Fernandinho punted clear from a corner, and Aguero controlled superbly before releasing substitute Navas on the break. The winger slotted underneath Joel Robles to equalise.
Astonishingly, the lead lasted barely minutes. A well-worked move positioned Barry to whip in a left-footed cross for Lukaku to turn in. The Belgian striker was then subbed for Arouna Kone amid what appeared to be an injury for Lukaku, per Sky Sports Football:
Needing to close the game out, Everton could trust a midfield that was professional and confident on the ball all night. In particular, Brennan was impressed with how well a former City man performed:
Gareth Barry has reminded everyone tonight how he won title with City. Hardly wasted a thing— Stuart Brennan (@StuBrennanMEN) January 6, 2016
But preserving the lead became tougher when Seamus Coleman left the field after Martinez had used all three substitutes. But Everton survived, even negotiating four minutes worth of injury time a man down.
Pellegrini was left very unhappy with two decisions that didn't go his team's way, per Mark Booth of City's official site:
The first goal was offside. He [Lukaku] was in front of Willy Caballero and it is unbelievable that the linesman did not see.
If you aggregate the clear penalty that we should have had for Jesus Navas - both of these are clear observations that can change the score.
It was a foul, it was clear – he took the legs of Jesus - it was a clear penalty.
Meanwhile, Martinez praised the influence of Barry as a key to his team's performance and success:
RM: "Gareth Barry is very underrated. The big reason we have so many successful young players is because of leaders like him." #EFCvMCFC— Everton (@Everton) January 6, 2016
While the Spaniard made it clear Lukaku had been subbed due to an injury, he downplayed its significance:
RM: "Rom will be assessed. I don't know if he'll be available for the weekend, but I don't expect it to be too serious." #EFCvMCFC— Everton (@Everton) January 6, 2016
The Toffees now get to take a lead to the Etihad Stadium as they eye a first trophy since winning the FA Cup in 1995. For City and Pellegrini, it's yet more disappointment away from home.