Wednesday, December 8

Everton’s comeback knocks out Southampton and leads Benítez to a winning start | Premier league

There was a hug at the final whistle for Duncan Ferguson, a salute from all four sides of Goodison Park and a hug for every member of the team that finally got his Everton career off to an ideal start. For Rafael Benítez, the first day in a potentially bitter office played out perfectly as his new team rallied from a sloppy opening to beat Southampton with three goals in the second half.

Benítez’s post-match salute to Goodison was reciprocated by an expected packed house of Evertonians raving about not only goals from Richarlison, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but also the spirit to recover from being left behind by Adam’s impressive start. Armstrong. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team impressed with spells and might consider the margin of defeat unfortunate, but lacked an incisive touch to polish their work of orderly focus and pressure play.

One issue Benitez didn’t have to deal with was hostile reception from the Goodison crowd. The new Everton manager received a standing ovation when he was introduced to local fans before kick-off. The throaty roar that also greeted the opening bars of Z-Cars perfectly captured the excitement of their mass comeback after 17 months out. But the groans followed, and it was Everton’s first-half performance that drove them. A sloppy display of the central defensive pairing of Michael Keane and Mason Holgate in particular.

Everton started brilliantly with new signing Demarai Gray up front and preparing Calvert-Lewin for an open header. Richarlison came straight into the starting lineup seven days after winning Olympic gold with Brazil in Tokyo, but James Rodríguez, Ben Godfrey, Moise Kean, Jean-Philippe Gbamin and André Gomes were absent. Benítez had confirmed that five senior players were isolated due to coronavirus problems, although whether he would have selected Rodriguez, Kean and Gomes is open to debate with doubts about his future from Goodison. Godfrey’s strength and pace were sorely missed.

Southampton were solid, well organized, with the arrival of the summer Tino Livramento impressing in their aerial duel with Calvert-Lewin. But the visitors had created little when a terrible mistake by Keane gave them the upper hand and Adam Armstrong had an excellent start to his career at Southampton. The Everton defender wavered too long in possession midway into his own half. Che Adams dispossessed Keane and freed Blackburn’s £ 15 million firm in the process. Armstrong, a replacement for Danny Ings in style and stature, advanced on Jordan Pickford’s goal and tipped a graceful shot into the upper corner.

Confidence evaporated in the local ranks and soared in visitors. Armstrong tested Pickford from a tight angle after Adams beat Holgate in midair once more. Keane came close to deflecting Adams’ pass attempt past his own goalkeeper after his defensive partner carelessly squandered possession. Richarlison was booked for a dive Tom Daley would have been proud of.

It was a sinister opening for Benitez’s career at Everton, but he oversaw a huge improvement for the second half and his more aggressive and positive team were quickly tied. Southampton cleared Lucas Digne’s near post corner, but only as far as Andros Townsend on the edge of the penalty area. The rookie sent a looping header back into the area where the unmarked Richarlison, played on the flank by Mohammed Salisu, volleyed to the roof of Alex McCarthy’s net from close range.

Benitez traded Richarlison inside with Gray moving left to good effect. Southampton fought back, with James Ward-Prowse making a series of dangerous corners and Romain Perraud combining well with Moussa Djenepo on the left. But it was Everton who ended up on the rise and secured the victory with two good team goals.

The much-maligned Alex Iwobi, as a late replacement for Townsend, was involved in both. After Doucouré delivered a quick free-kick to Seamus Coleman down the right, Iwobi steered the captain’s neat piece into the midfielder’s path. Doucouré, coached by Benítez to get ahead and score more this season, flipped his marker inside the area before beating McCarthy with an unstoppable shot to the squad. Five minutes later Richarlison exchanged passes with Iwobi and swept a delicious first half cross across the face of McCarthy’s goal. The keeper couldn’t keep Calvert-Lewin’s header from crossing the line. Goodison was a very happy place again.

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