Unflagging Richarlison and Pickford keep Everton on path to safety | Premier League


It was the last trial. The last chance. After countless rebuffs and rejections, a 12-hour bus journey to Belo Horizonte for an open training session with América’s under-17 side awaited him. If he failed to make the grade at the Brazilian club then not only would he have no real future in football, but he also had no way of getting home. A one-way ticket was all Richarlison de Andrade could afford. No safety net. No second chances.

Perhaps in a parallel timeline, Richarlison does not impress the América scouts that morning. Perhaps he turns an ankle and is forced to limp to the sidelines, dejected and distraught. Perhaps he hitches a lift back to his home town of Nova Venécia, just off the eastern seaboard of Brazil, and goes back to selling sweets from a cart. Perhaps like many of his hometown friends, he ends up running drugs, in prison or in the ground.

And so, a minute into the second half at Goodison Park, Richarlison is on another journey. Chelsea have the ball and are working it across the defence to César Azpilicueta, just as they have done in a thousand training sessions and match situations before. Richarlison knows that his chances of winning the ball, on his own, against a Champions League‑winning backline, are almost non-existent. But something deep within, some voice from a not-so-distant past, tells him he has no choice. And so he chases.

Azpilicueta hesitates on the ball. That fraction of a second is all that Richarlison needs to swallow up the ground between them and throw a hopeful leg at the ball. That yard of fine-tuned pace is the difference between the ball deflecting harmlessly away towards the touchline and ricocheting back towards him, giving him a clear run on goal. As the ball hits the net and Goodison Park explodes, Richarlison picks up a billowing blue smoke canister and hurls it back into a delirious crowd.

So go the margins. Might Everton still have won this game had Richarlison not conjured a goal out of his own irrepressible will? Maybe, even if they had 22% possession and barely a third of the shots. Might they still have retained their Premier League status had they not won this game? Maybe, even if a draw would have left them four points behind a rampant Burnley side. But like pretty much every challenge Everton have faced this season, you would have to bet against them.

In a way this has been Everton’s predicament all season: a tyranny of low percentages, of attacks that are doomed to fizzle out and a defence that will inevitably wilt sooner or later. If you can’t keep the ball, and you can’t keep the ball out, and your main goalscoring centre-forward has been injured for much of the season, then you are relying on a lot coincidences to go your way. And 45 minutes into this tense and occasionally tetchy game, Everton’s luck looked like it was running out.

Richarlison gives his shirt to a fan after victory against Chelsea
Richarlison gives his shirt to a fan after victory against Chelsea Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

The odds were against Richarlison. But then, the odds have been against him before. And in a grim season for Everton, they have so often been forced to dip into their Brazilian forward’s inexhaustible desire, his ability to make something out of nothing. It was his 92nd-minute goal that rescued a point at home to Leicester two weeks ago. His equaliser that rescued a hopeless cause against Arsenal in December. His lightning sharpness, often in a lone forward role, that has often been the difference between Everton and total oblivion.

Could it yet save them here? Certainly you could feel the galvanising effect of Richarlison’s goal on his teammates over the rest of the game. Yerry Mina was a towering presence in defence. Abdoulaye Doucouré won everything in midfield. And most notably of all Jordan Pickford had one of those games in which he temporarily leaves the mortal plane and starts pulling off outlandish, otherworldly saves in quick succession.

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After keeping Everton in the game, it was fitting that with 98 minutes on the clock it was Pickford who saw this one out, smothering the ball in his own area as Goodison pleaded for Kevin Friend’s final whistle. The statisticians will tell you that Everton got lucky here: outplayed in terms of possession and outshot in terms of chances, ransacking a win courtesy of a lucky deflection and an inspired goalkeeping performance. The counter-argument is that the last five games of a relegation battle is no time to be worrying about percentages.

One of the curiosities of this Everton squad, for all the frequent assertions that it is too good to go down, is how many of them have endured the pain of relegation before. Michael Keane with Burnley. Andros Townsend with QPR and Newcastle. Doucouré with Watford, Salomón Rondón with West Brom, Pickford with Sunderland.

This is a group of players who know what it means to stare into the abyss. And perhaps nobody knows it better than Richarlison, who at full time bore not the expression of triumph or elation, but simply the look of a man on a long journey, one who has come too far to turn back now.



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