Everton are clearly progressing despite prolonged anxiety after Watford frustration

Everton have come close to survival in the Premier League but will regret a missed opportunity to take a giant leap to safety.

The Blues managed a goalless draw against Watford to put them one point clear of relegation rivals Burnley and Leeds United. But, with Roy Hodgson’s men relegated at the weekend and amid an injury crisis, Everton may have prolonged the anxiety of their dedicated supporters into the final week of the season.

The visiting side – avoiding defeat for only the second time since their draw at Chelsea on December 16 – had chances as they dominated sections of the second half at Vicarage Road. Richarlison forced a brilliant one-handed save from Ben Foster with a deflected effort and Everton found themselves in a number of promising positions – particularly after sloppy errors from Watford who presented the ball to them in the final third. Although they were pushed by another roving army of passionate Blues, they were, however, unable to convert those opportunities into clean chances.

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And Watford maintained a threat on the counterattack, with the hosts thwarted by big tackles from Fabian Delph, Seamus Coleman and Mason Holgate as they tried to clear.

As Leeds United suffered a loss to Chelsea, the gap to the bottom three widened and Everton’s growing momentum continued as they scored seven from nine points since that derby defeat. Merseyside last month. Their fates remain in their hands and Frank Lampard, who played such a crucial role in ensuring that was the case, was serenaded again as he made his way to the outdoor section to thank the thousands of travelers after the final whistle.

Yet the journey north – by coaches, players and fans – will be steeped in frustration. A win on Wednesday would have left the Blues on the brink of Premier League safety. Three points might even have been enough to guarantee survival ahead of the home kick-off against Brentford on Sunday afternoon. Instead, they will have to play at least another 90 minutes under the pressure of a relegation battle.

And in the end, Everton left watching nervously as Christian Kabasele’s late effort from a Watford free-kick squirmed in the grateful arms of Jordan Pickford.

Lampard had made a change to the starting lineup, bringing in Michael Keane for the injured Yerry Mina, who is expected to be out for at least the next two games. After sitting deep against Chelsea and Leicester City, his players shoving their way to important wins despite conceding much of possession, he maintained that approach – again asking Alex Iwobi to operate in as a right-back.

Watford took advantage in the first 15 minutes, starting brilliantly. Joao Pedro was a menacing presence as the Hornets probed, but few serious questions were asked of Pickford – the closest call coming from Keane as he sent a block towards goal on his shins.

As the game developed the visitors gained a foothold and repeatedly found space beyond the Watford back line, Iwobi, Richarlison and Anthony Gordon all ran without mistake. But each time the break fell short, with Everton unable to convert promising positions into clean chances.

After scoring the winner against Leicester City from a corner, they also offered little threat from their attacking set pieces. Paul Clement, who took responsibility for coaching set pieces under Lampard, could be seen going to the edge of the technical box to study every corner and free kick. But all were comfortably treated by Watford.

Everton dominated the early stages of the second half – Richarlison forcing that save from Foster and Demarai Gray firing wide after a nice one-two with Iwobi. Lampard made some changes towards the end – including bringing in Dominic Calvert-Lewin for his first few minutes following the latest injury of his difficult season. But it was, in the end, a match in which the limits of two teams caught on the wrong side of the table were all too clear.

That didn’t silence the traveling Blues, however, who did everything they could to push their side to what would have been a vital win. Yet while there will undoubtedly be frustration in their ranks, the larger context of this outcome remains important. Few dreaming of Everton’s survival would have turned down four points from the away double header that kicked off their run of five games in 14 days to keep them safe in the Premier League.

That hopes were so high by victory at the King Power Stadium – and that against Chelsea the previous week – shows how far Everton have come in recent weeks. Once again the focus will now turn to what they can accomplish at Goodison Park. Hopes rest on their L4 fortress, where they will have chances to strengthen their position against Brentford and Crystal Palace before traveling to Arsenal on the final day of the campaign.

It could have been avoided had they found a way to turn a point into a three at Watford. But, for this Everton team, this season it would have been too easy.

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