It's 32 years since Everton last appeared in a League Cup final but, after an exhilarating second half, Roberto Martinez's side has the advantage going into the second leg of the semifinal after defeating Manchester 2-1 at Goodison Park on Wednesday night.
The Toffees looked to have blown the advantage given it by Ramiro Funes Mori just before halftime with a moment of bizarre over-exuberance but, within two minutes of conceding a 76th minute equalizer to Jesus Navas, Romelu Lukaku had restored Everton's advantage. It was the Belgium striker's last act of the game as he hobbled off, but it was a vital one, extending a remarkable hot streak in which he has failed to score in only two of the last twelve games.
This had, briefly, threatened to be typical of Everton's season, a very good performance undermined by defensive laxity. Even with Lukaku's winner, this is perhaps a sense that Everton might have had a greater advantage to take to the Etihad in three weeks. "It means nothing," Martinez said after Everton's win. "We had to win our first game, now we have to prepare for a very interesting second leg."
The terraces haven't been in outright revolt, but there has been significant grumbling of late from Everton fans about Martinez. In this most unpredictable of Premier League season there is a sense that an opportunity is being missed, that an Everton side with so many high-class players should be rather higher than eleventh, particularly given the form of Lukaku, who has hit 15 goals this season in the league.
"We played eye-to-eye against a very good Manchester City side and after conceding that goal on a really good counter attack, the winning mentality we showed to get that [winning] goal was really impressive," Martinez added. "That character we showed tonight was a big difference.
Everton has produced passages of sumptuous football this season, but it has been undermined again and again by defensive laxity; 29 goals conceded is the seventh worst record in the league; 36 goals sored in third best. That was always the criticism of Martinez at Wigan, that he was too wedded to his attacking principles.
Against Tottenham on Sunday and here, though, Everton began by sitting deep, looking to absorb pressure. Against Spurs the policy resulted in an awkward first half in which Everton was fortunate to go in level at 1-1, before a much improved second half in which it couldn't find a winner. Here the balance seemed rather better. City dominated for 20 minutes or so but didn't create a clear opportunity, and, much as against Tottenham, Everton gradually came into the game.
Twice Everton had the ball in the net towards the end of the first half only to be denied -- correctly -- by a linesman's flag, but the momentum was with the home side. It had a scare two minutes before halftime as Joel Robles was called upon to parry from Aguero, whose follow-up effort was hacked away by Funes Mori. In first half injury-time, the Argentine defender put Everton ahead, reacting first after Willy Caballero had parried a fierce drive from Ross Barkley. The shot was struck powerfully enough, but the goalkeeper probably should have been able to divert the ball away from the danger area.
City, after that bright opening, was strangely insipid. Yaya Ture, as is his standard these days, loped through the game, trudging where he used to cruise. David Silva, playing initially from the left, was peripheral and although he did become more involved after moving into the center when Jesus Navas was brought on for Fabian Delph -- who might never really got a grip on the game -- well-marshalled by Gareth Barry and Muhamed Besic. Kevin De Bruyne, as he can in away games, lacked the purpose and energy he demonstrates at home, although he did draw a stretching save from Joel Robles with 20 minutes remaining. Aguero, meanwhile, still doesn't look back to his sharpest after his ankle injury.
But the biggest issue, as it has been all season when Vincent Kompany is absent, was the back four. Eliaquim Mangala, who had gone off after 75 minutes in Saturday's win over Watford, lasted only until halftime here, having never really got to grips with Lukaku.
Although City dominated possession after the break, the better chances went the home side's way. Caballero made a fine back-pedalling save to keep out a mishit cross from Gerard Deulofeu. Barkley was a persistent menace, partly because Toure seemed physically incapable of keeping up with him, and from another break his shot from a narrow angle was blocked by the chest of Caballero.
Perhaps Everton got over-excited. It piled men forward for a corner, and was undone by a long clearance from Fernandinho. Aguero beat Seamus Coleman and with the defense back-pedalling slipped a ball though for Navas to score. Within two minutes, though, the lead was restored. Lukaku was already hobbling when he arrived at the back post to meet a Baines delivery with a powerful header.
It's a fragile lead, but Everton's first silverware since the FA Cup in 1995 is just two steps away.