Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez’s controversial tenure at Everton got off to a strong start as his team came from behind to beat Southampton 3-1 in the Premier League on Saturday. (More Football News)
The Spaniard, famous for a rather more high-profile comeback with the red half of the city in the Champions League final in 2005, has plenty of work to do to convince the doubters he can ever be accepted at Goodison Park but this was as good an opening as he could have wished for.
It was a performance which could have gone horribly wrong after Michael Keane’s error allowed Southampton debutant Adam Armstrong to score his first Premier League goal midway through the first half.
Everton struggled at home throughout last season and, in the period up to the interval, that looked like being replicated.
However, Richarlison, fresh off winning a gold medal with Brazil in the football tournament at the Olympic Games, got the hosts back on level terms early in the second half by prodding in from close range, Abdoulaye Doucoure’s superb shot on the turn put them ahead and Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s diving header clinched only the second win at Goodison Park since March.
Benitez’s selection was limited by six players being absent, but he gave debuts to new signings Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, with the former — playing behind fit-again striker Calvert-Lewin — particularly involved in the opening 25 minutes.
Despite that, they had little to show from a positive start, with Allan shooting weakly at Alex McCarthy and Calvert-Lewin heading wide.
But even Benitez, a master in the art of micro-management, could not have foreseen what came next as Keane’s dithering on the ball proved costly.
The center back was caught in possession in his own half by Che Adams and, having ridden a tackle from Mason Holgate, the striker slipped in Armstrong — recently signed from second-tier Blackburn — to clip a shot over Jordan Pickford.
Everton looked short of ideas, going aimlessly long when previously the team had been playing through the lines, as confidence quickly drained away — a trait which plagued the team at home throughout last season.
Keane looked ponderous on more than one occasion and almost diverted one Southampton pass past Pickford, who kept out Armstrong’s near-post angled volley just before halftime.
There were a smattering of boos when the whistle blew, but just two minutes after the break the mood changed again as Townsend headed a half-cleared corner back into the area and Richarlison’s close-range volley went in off the underside of the crossbar.
Benitez brought the Brazilian, booked in the first half for diving, into a central position, moving Gray out to the left as his influence waned. It had the desired effect.
Keane’s goalbound shot hit Calvert-Lewin and substitute Alex Iwobi fluffed his kick as the momentum switched back to the home side.
But it was Iwobi’s 76th-minute knockdown which teed up Doucoure to smash home into the top corner, and Calvert-Lewin’s near-post diving header from Richarlison’s cross got Benitez up and running in some style.