Briefly and improbably, Everton are top of the Premier League. They got there not by clerical error, or through a sudden and unexplained vaporisation of all the teams beginning with letters from A to D, but by winning their third game in a row: a greasy, hard-fought, relentless entertaining arm wrestle with Crystal Palace at a drenched and freezing Selhurst Park.
They were the better team, the more ambitious team, the more attractive team to watch, and yet they still largely owed their win to the butterfly wings of VAR: Richarlison’s first-half penalty being awarded for a painfully harsh handball against Joel Ward. Nonetheless, they continue to make strides under Carlo Ancelotti, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin notching his fifth goal of the season and the defence putting in another solid shift.
In fact, both sides played with the poise and assurance you might expect given their 100 per cent records. Palace were more compact than they were at Old Trafford last weekend but defended well for the most part.
Ebere Eze made an encouraging debut on the left wing after his £20m move from QPR, growing into the game and seeing plenty of the ball. The set-piece delivery of Andros Townsend was a constant threat. Jameses McCarthy and McArthur, the ghost of Everton midfields past, locked things down with vigour and intent. They may not quite offer the same technical quality as André Gomes or James Rodríguez, but based on this behind-closed-doors evidence they more than make up for it in screaming.
But it was Everton who soon took control of the ball, and with their superior technique and quick switches of play always looked more likely to score. It was just such a switch that led to their opening goal, Séamus Coleman picking up Gomes’s long ball on the right, receiving Rodríguez’s delicious return past and squaring for Calvert-Lewin to finish.
Against the run of play, Palace hit back on 26 minutes. Townsend, who had been obsessively practising his inswinging corners during the pre-match warm-up, produced a delightful delivery into Jordan Pickford’s corridor of uncertainty, Cheikhou Kouyate with a haymaker of a header at the back post.
Around 10 minutes later, Lucas Digne tried to head the ball into the path of Richarlison, only for the ball to flick Ward’s hand on its way through. Play continued. Palace had an attack. Everton won the ball back. Autumn turned to winter. Joe Biden won the presidential election. Random parts of Greenland continued to melt into the Arctic Ocean. Winter turned to spring. Ward retired and grew old. Humanity itself finally incinerated and perished in the Second Great Conflagration.
At which point, Kevin Friend brought play back, studied the video screen and awarded Everton a penalty for the earlier handball. Richarlison, by now a wizened, shrivelled stack of bones and rags barely recognisable from his younger self, tucked it past Vicente Guaita into the top corner.
All Ward could do, really, was laugh. His hand had been in an entirely natural position at the side of his body. He had not moved towards the ball, indeed had barely had time to react at all. And yet, if it really was a handball preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity, why wasn’t he booked? It was, in sum, a messy interpretation of a messy rule, one that further consecrates the convention that, regardless of context or intent, any sort of hand/ball contact in the penalty area will now be penalised.
Palace pushed higher in the second half, tried to engage Everton higher up the pitch. Abdoulaye Doucouré did brilliantly to hold off a marauding Wilfried Zaha at full pelt. Palace had a penalty appeal of their own turned down, even though Calvert-Lewin’s arm (in front of his chest, and yet technically within the silhouette of his body) was in no more natural a position than Ward’s. At the other end, Calvert-Lewin missed a glorious chance to make the game safe.
But as a chastening evening chill began to set in, Everton gritted their teeth, held firm and earned their reward. It has been a dazzlingly confident start to the season from them, one that fully justifies the optimism vested in them at its outset. Are they going to win the Premier League this season? Are they going to win it next season, or the one after that? No, no, and a thousand times no. But for now they can survey the rest of the table from their lofty perch, and dream like kings.