Sean Dyche has just found two unlikely Everton heroes and priceless commodity in relegation fight
Everton need heroes and Sean Dyche might have just unearthed some.
Last season there was Richarlison. He has left. There was Jordan Pickford. He remains but can only do so much. And then, at the death, there was Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He may yet have his say in this difficult season.
But a side bereft of goals needs magic and desire to stay competitive. In Abdoulaye Doucoure, the scorer of the Blues’ first goal in this draw at Stamford Bridge, Dyche has found a source of inspiration. In Ellis Simms, on Saturday night at least, he found some magic.
PLAYER RATINGS: Ellis Simms the hero and Abdoulaye Doucoure superb against Chelsea
TALKING POINT: Everton have just given their clearest hint yet they can escape relegation
This was a result as valuable as it was unexpected after Kai Havertz restored Chelsea’s lead from the penalty spot with 15 minutes to go. Everton had already forced their way back into the game once, Doucoure’s header creeping past the outstretched palms of Kepa Arrizabalaga and over the line to the disbelief of almost everyone. Until referee Darren England pointed to the spot, after Reece James fell under pressure from Ben Godfrey and James Tarkowski, it felt like the Blues were on course for another important away result. But after Pickford was sent the wrong way a sense of deja vu began to dominate among an away support too used to disappointed journeys home. The chants of Goodison Gang and the smell of the blue pyrotechnics that had greeted Doucoure’s second goal in consecutive away games had dispersed and forlorn eyes looked at a Premier League table that had lost the gloss created by last week’s win at Brentford.
But then up stepped Simms. Simms, the academy graduate who was not part of Everton’s first-team plans at the start of the season. Simms, who was brought back from a loan spell in the Championship in an apologetic move that signalled the arrival of the only new face in the squad in January. Simms, thrown into the starting line up at Anfield only to cut an isolated figure starved of support before his withdrawal in that sorry defeat. For so long, the Blues, damaged by Calvert-Lewin’s persistent struggle with injury, have needed a striker. Demarai Gray has been bright and, occasionally, threatening since earning the trust of Dyche to take on that role in recent weeks. But there is only Simms among the limited options available to Dyche that can do what he did in the final minutes at Stamford Bridge. In a display of skill and composure he brushed past Kalidou Koulibaly before calmly slotting past Kepa.
When Simms, now 22, made his first-team debut on this ground last season he may have believed moments like this were around the corner. They were not. Spells at Hearts, then Sunderland, followed. Now, he finally has his moment and it is one to savour as he delivered for a side in need of saviours.
Simms’ joy was created by the biggest change wrought by Dyche since his arrival – that man Doucoure. Scorer of the first equaliser, he turned creator for the second. A forgotten soul under Frank Lampard, he has salvaged his Everton career and in the dying months of his contract he is making an increasingly strong case for the extension he has craved since last summer.
The Blues have 10 games left and a point here does not remove them from a battle that has dragged eight other teams into a desperate fight for survival. They will need more character like that shown by Doucoure, more moments of inspiration like that from Simms, particularly if they continue to labour in matches as they had done for so long again in this fixture.
As the teams ran down the tunnel at half-time, the game goalless, they did so after a final few minutes that hinted Everton could take something from this encounter. Chelsea had threatened without overwhelming the visitors. The front three of Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Joao Felix sparked a number of slick moves, typically supported by Enzo Fernandez, but for all the joy out wide Everton were able to cut out the crosses that followed. The best chances for the hosts came early and from an unexpected source – corners. Mateo Kovacic hammered a volley wide as he met a looping headed clearance from Michael Keane from Chelsea’s first before Havertz miscued a header he won, unchallenged, soon after. The flicks, tricks and spins kept coming from Chelsea but there were few genuine opportunities – Godfrey and Amadou Onana both making important interventions to prevent crosses across the face of goal from reaching their target.
There were signs Everton were clinging on just before half-time, Felix stealing the ball from Tarkowski on the halfway line to spark a break that saw the centre-back pull him down out of view of the referee. An incensed Felix was still able to pick himself up to collect the final ball and drill at Pickford. Moments later Fernandez left Dwight McNeil flailing on the edge of the area as he turned the midfielder and forced him into a lunge for which he was booked. The resulting free kick was played into the path of Fernandez but blocked by a mass of defenders.
It was during those final minutes of the first half that the Blues also had their best attacking forays though, hinting that more confidence higher up the pitch could have brought them more joy. This Chelsea side is vulnerable. Everyone knew that. So when Felix then put his ahead just after the break, his low effort squirming in off the inside of the post after a weak Keane clearance, it sparked a familiar feeling – one of Everton’s lack of confidence in the final third holding them back against teams that could crumble if placed under greater pressure.
That sense was only strengthened when Keane then came a whisker from heading in a Gray cross and it felt as though a side whose struggles to score have been so severe had missed their big chance. But then up stepped Doucoure who, either side of Havertz’s penalty, became the first Everton player to score and gain an assist in the same game since Richarlison against Brentford almost 12 months ago. And with that lay-off for the second equaliser came Simms, whose first senior goal will mean as much to the travelling fanbase and Everton’s fight for survival as it will to him.
The Blues now head into a 16-day break having taken five points from the last three games, scored twice in their previous two away games and taken more points than anyone in the relegation fight since the arrival of Dyche. There is a long way to go. But Everton have momentum.