December 28th 2014 and January 1st 2015. At first glance they may not appear as significant dates but, for one footballer, the football fixtures that took place would end up shaping their season.
Having spent the past thirteen months recovering from a knee ligament injury, Arouna Kone returned to first team action for Everton to make successive starts against Newcastle United and Hull City – the teams that the Blues faced on these two particular dates – and even notched his first Everton goal in the defeat on Tyneside.
The Ivory Coast international looked hungry, energetic and keen to make up for a long year out with an injury that seemed innocuous following the 2-1 victory over Hull back in October 2013 – the last time that Kone would figure for the Toffees for over a year.
And yet it was Kone’s team mate, and fellow striker, who would benefit most from the return of the 31 year old.
The 2013/14 season ended up being a particularly gruelling one for Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian international had started on 31 occasions for the Blues during his season long loan spell from Chelsea, suffered an ankle injury in the 4-0 Merseyside derby defeat in January that halted his promising season, and figured for his country in last summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
It would be an understatement to suggest that, as a result of such a long season, the 21 year old struggled for fitness and form during the first half of the current campaign, with accomplished performances against the likes of Wolfsburg, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion proving to be exceptions to the norm.
Lukaku’s performances were not aided by a first team squad that was lacking in self belief and confidence either, with results, especially domestically, falling short of the standards that were set in Roberto Martinez’s debut season in charge. Late goals conceded to Leicester City and Arsenal in the opening games of the campaign, alongside a 6-3 demolition at home to current Premier League leaders Chelsea, contributed to an extremely shaky backline shipping an uncharacteristic amounts of goals – leading to an increased pressure on the Toffees’ forward line to find the back of the opposition net more often to accomodate a leaky defensive rearguard.
The experienced head of ex-Everton forward Samuel Eto’o, the enterprising performances of Steven Naismith and the return to fitness of Kone increased competition for places in the Blues’ attacking positions, with the latter’s first team recall eventually consigning Lukaku to the bench for two matches in a row.
It was a ploy that provided a stark warning, to the striker, that he was not immune from being dropped from the first choice lineup.
But how it has paid dividends for both Everton and Lukaku since his reintroduction to the starting eleven.
Since being recalled for the third round FA Cup tie at Goodison Park against West Ham United, five days after the defeat to Hull, Lukaku has bagged six goals and an assist in nine matches – only one goal and two assists shy of his entire total in the first four months of the season – in a series of performances that have seen improvements in his work rate, hold up play and movement in and around the box.
And with these improved displays has come more goalscoring opportunities. The Belgian has fired goalwards on 55 occasions since reclaiming his first team place – 20 of those shots of which were scored, saved or blocked by the opposition – with the 0-0 Merseyside derby draw in January the only match in which Lukaku was not presented with a single goalscoring opportunity.
Of course, Lukaku still has much of his game to improve upon – most notably his first touch, aerial prowess and hold up play – but there have been slight improvements to these areas of his overall game throughout this relative purple patch of form, and at the tender age of 21 he will only continue to refine his talent.
His recent naive suggestion that he hopes to “eventually arrive at a top club again” did little to alter the perceptions of some Evertonians that Lukaku is not worth the £28m fee paid for his services, but if the 35-times capped international can continue to develop under the tutelage of Martinez and, in the process, fire Everton back into the upper echelons of the Premier League in seasons to come, there is no reason why he cannot achieve his ambitions with the Toffees.
Both Martinez and Evertonians will hope those cold, bruising festive fixtures spent on the bench will serve as a reminder as to what awaits Lukaku if his form dips for an extended period once again. If it does, Arouna Kone could stick around in the first team for longer.