Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez’s controversial reign as Everton boss got off to the perfect start as his side came from behind to beat Southampton 3-1.
The Spaniard, famous for a rather more high-profile comeback with the red half of the city in 2005, has plenty of work 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.
This was a performance which could have gone horribly wrong after Michael Keane’s calamitous error had allowed Saints debutant Adam Armstrong to score his first Premier League goal midway through the first half.
Benitez’s predecessor Carlo Ancelotti struggled throughout last season with a confidence problem at home, and in the period up to the interval that looked like being replicated.
However, Olympic champion Richarlison’s golden touch got the hosts back on level terms early in the second half, 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 with half a dozen players 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 centre-back was caught in possession just outside his own penalty area by Che Adams and, having ridden a tackle from Mason Holgate, the striker slipped in Armstrong – a £15million signing from Blackburn – to clip over Jordan Pickford.
And just like that Everton looked short of ideas, going aimlessly long when previously they had been playing through the lines as confidence quickly drained away – a trait which plagued them at home throughout last season.
Keane looked ponderous on more than one occasion and almost diverted one Southampton pass past Pickford, who denied Armstrong’s near-post angled volley just before half-time.
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 six-yard 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, and 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 take the roof off Goodison Park, and Calvert-Lewin’s near-post diving header from Richarlison’s cross got Benitez up and running in some style.
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