Everton should have every right to feel hard done to as they exited the League Cup at The Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.
Replays have shown that the ball had gone out of play before Raheem Sterling set up Kevin de Bruyne to score what Roberto Martinez called the key goal of the tie.
But although luck has certainly played a part of late – City’s equaliser from Fernandinho and Jordan Ayew’s winner for Swansea on Saturday both came via deflections – these defensive collapses are partly of Everton’s own making.
Their one positive at The Etihad was the performance of Ross Barkley, and in particular his excellent goal in the first half. He created the chance for himself, charging through a City midfield which crumbled at his feet, before using his right boot to smash the ball into the bottom corner from outside the area. Willy Caballero, coming in for Joe Hart in the City goal, had no chance.
Barkley’s performance should be a positive sign for Everton, but as the 22-year-old England international ghosted through the space vacated by Yaya Touré, he might have reminded those in charge of player recruitment at The Etihad of his considerable talent.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini deployed Touré in a deep lying midfield role for the first half of the game, but he was nowhere to be seen as Barkley waltzed through to score. Neither were Fernandinho or Fabian Delph, though, and it was the latter who was withdrawn at half-time.
This second half change saw Jesus Navas come on to offer his usual width on the right, while Touré moved forward into what is now a more suitable position for him, acting as a play-maker further up the pitch behind the striker.
It’s here that the big Ivorian is relieved of the defensive duties which must be carried out in the deeper role, and this advanced position requires less positional discipline, allowing Yaya to do what he does best.
It’s the same, or at least similar to the role which Barkley was playing for Everton, and one which showcases the considerable skills of the two players.
As the game progressed Everton lost their cutting edge in attack and, crucially, their concentration in defence.
The referee’s decision to allow De Bruyne’s goal to stand could divert attention away from what was another iffy performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. They struggled to finish off chances despite creating opportunities and getting into good areas in the opposition half.
Gerard Deulofeu has been very lively in the defeats against Swansea and now Manchester City, but the final action has been lacking. Whether this be a dangerous cross which no one manages to get on the end of, or an opportunity to score such as the one the Spaniard had when he found himself one-on-one with Caballero, the result has too often been a good chance missed, rather than a goal.
In a season where the league (and the cups) are providing opportunities for clubs outside of the usual elite, a strong squad such as Everton’s should be taking their opportunity while they can.
There are opportunities for at least one wildcard side to make the top four or put a good run together in the cups, but Everton have stalled at a crucial moment.
The likes of Barkley, John Stones, and Romelu Lukaku are forever linked with moves to “bigger clubs”, but in the current climate Everton have a chance to become a big club once again – in terms of results on the pitch and not just historical stature.
If they can’t take this opportunity then they could risk losing these players to other clubs, and the English pair could be the most sought after by those Premier League clubs participating in the Champions League.
Manchester City in particular like to buy in their homegrown quota of players thanks to their incompetence when it comes to developing their own, and with Yaya Touré reaching the age of 33 before the start of next season, Barkley could fit perfectly in a new look City side.
Touré has proven during his time at the club that, on his day, he’s one of the best midfielders in the world. His goal in the 2011 FA Cup Semi-Final against Manchester United will go down in City folklore, while more recently a volley with his weaker foot from a corner against Watford was an example of his world-class technique.
In amongst similarly talented team-mates with world class skill and ambitions to match, Barkley could also reach these levels, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll be able to do so at Everton.