The Riverside took a battering from the North Sea and the elements and the prospects of a game for the ages were grim.
Victor Valdes will have encountered few such days while at Barcelona for more than a decade but he made three great saves to deny Romelu Lukaku and twice Ademola Lookman as Everton were thwarted by Aitor Karanka’s battling Boro.
The Spanish goalkeeper made the best of his saves to thwart Lukaku, bearing down on the Middlesbrough goal, on the half hour. He also held his nerve to stop another effort from Lookman with his legs in the 68th minute having kept the same player at bay in the first half.
Middlesbrough had chances, too, and in the circumstances a point that was hard-earned on Teesside could be a good addition come the end of the season for Everton.
For the Blues, Idrissa Gana Gueye made a first start since his return from African Cup of Nations duty with Senegal, meaning that he and Morgan Schneiderlin formed a midfield alliance, two of the most accomplished practitioners in the Premier League at breaking up play and starting incisive moves for their team. Gareth Barry it was who made way for Gana while Tom Davies also came into the starting line-up in place of James McCarthy.
Ronald Koeman was not underestimating the challenge either, despite Middlesbrough’s position just one point above the relegation places as the game kicked off. “We are doing really well in 2017 but everyone knows about the Premier League and the strong competition,” he warned. “You need to be prepared every weekend and what happened last week will not count today. We still have the same targets that we had at the beginning of the season. We would like to fight for Europe but we need more points and more wins. We always analyse our opponents and we know about Middlesbrough’s good defensive organisation. We will have to keep the ball and what will be important is our offensive movement to create chances.”
The offensive movement looked good from the outset, with Gueye and Schneiderlin providing strong protective cover and Davies pushing forward in support of the attacking players. Ross Barkley’s one-two with Seamus Coleman to the right of the penalty area opened a pathway through the Middlesbrough rearguard, Barkley skipped around Cristhian Stuani and almost threaded a telling pass through to Davies, who was not quite able to take control of the ball before Valdes gathered the ball at his near post, averting the early danger.
There was further threat when Gueye measured a pass from the right side of midfield in behind the Boro defence to Davies who was thwarted only by the goalkeeper coming off his line fast to gather the ball at the midfielder’s feet. As the manager had predicted, however, keeping the ball was always going to be a key factor and the Blues became too loose in possession, playing into the hands – and feet – of a team that is battling for its survival in the top division. Sloppy play by the visitors allowed the hosts to seize the initiative and they needed no such encouragement. Adam Forshaw broke through a clear gap in the Everton defence and, inadvertently, Coleman almost teed up a chance for Stuani before Joel Robles closed him down and cleared his lines.
Suddenly, the Riverside was raucous. Everton’s edginess was apparent. Adama Traore grabbed the bull by the horns and accelerated through the Everton defence and it looked like he would have a clear shot at goal from close range before Coleman cleared.
Everton were under conspicuous pressure. But, against the tide, Davies was able to break up play in midfield and measure his pass to Lukaku who was charging through towards goal. Following his four goals last week, he was favourite to score another as he and Valdes faced off, but the Belgian’s shot was blocked by the goalkeeper’s legs and Middlesbrough survived a gift of the best chance of the game to the most clinical finisher on the pitch.
Heartened by the clear opportunity, the Blues became a more cohesive unit and Barkley’s pass to Coleman on the right gave the Irishman space to pick out his pass to the back post for Lookman who might have headed first time but, instead, chose to take the ball down on his chest and Valdes made the save at his near post. Lookman made a sharp run from the wing and fired his shot into the side netting before the end of the half.
A Forshaw free-kick on the edge of the penalty area near the start of the second half was met by Schneiderlin’s header but Marten de Roon headed the ball back across the box for Stuani to direct his header at goal, with Robles stood in the right spot to make a comfortable save. From a throw-in, just after the introduction of Enner Valencia for Gueye, Barkley turned and cut back decisively before unleashing a right-footed effort that just cleared the crossbar.
Then a corner kick was conceded at the other end, Boro skipper Ben Gibson met it with a towering header and Leighton Baines was in the right place at the right time to head the ball off the line at the near post. Gaston Ramirez replaced Stuani for Middlesbrough, a second substitution after Adlene Guedioura had come on for Forshaw.
Great work by Baines was rewarded with a foul on Lookman which yielded a free kick just to the right of the penalty area. Barkley’s set play was blocked by the two-man wall but the midfielder redeemed himself when he set up Lookman who was through inside the penalty area when he shot low and towards the back post only for Valdes to make another vital save.
Lookman made way for Aaron Lennon but a great ball from Fabio from the left just eluded the head of Alvaro Negredo who had certainly put a shift in.
It was that kind of day.