Mikel Arteta returned form his treatment sojourn in Spain but was only on the bench. No surprises in the selected line-up: 4-4-2 with Yakubu and Johnson up front once again.
A lively start from Everton, who mounted a good attack down the right, Yakubu firing wide but at least showing some appetite. Osman then stormed forward but scuffed his shot for a corner. Total pressure from Everton, playing it on the ground, but if anything panicking a little with the final ball.
But Villa eventually responded and won their first corner, that needed to be hooked away by Lescott. Barry fired well wide as Villa regained their composure and started to take the game to Everton, whose adventurous start was deflated a little too easily. Osman on one attack was far too easily barged off the ball as Villa seemed to figure out how to close down the Everton passing machine.
A good forward ball from Lescott set Yakubu off on a great run, holding off an then bamboozling Reo-Cocker to put in a fantastic shot with tremendous power form the left, forcing a stupendous save from Carson, and a useless follow-up from Fernandes, who could not capitalize. Despite this moment of quality and excitement, the hoof balls were inevitably creeping in...
Johnson got a rare meaningful touch, cutting the ball back, but behind Yakubu and Fernandes. on the next attack, Yakubu, wide left, crossed very poorly to Johnson in the middle...Why??? Petrov booked (28'). Then Jagielka's desperate lunge set up a dangerous free kick, Young 's great strike smacking off the Everton bar.
Neville gave away another free kick, wide right, that Mellberg glanced wide as Villa kept pressing and looked increasingly the more likely to score. Yakubu, booked for elbowing Mellberg or showing dissent at the foul awarded. Yakubu was guilty again of playing wide, crossing pointlessly . Carsley was next in the book for a poor late challenge, as they seem determined to throw away even the chance of the Uefa Fair Play place!
Everton looked poorer and poorer as half-time approached, their increasingly moribund attacking nous was shown up by a daft floated hoof from Lescott that Yakubu back-headed... to nobody. No shape or structure going forward.
Everton started the second half with a bit more life and had another good spell of pressure in which Carsley and Osman had shots blocked, and Yakubu again crossed from the wing, Villa countered strongly but this time Everton came straight back at them. But a corner well-won was poorly over-hit by Fernandes.
The next attack, though, gave Everton the lead, Yakubu getting forward again wide left but this time running the ball into the area yet crossing poorly behind everyone, but Neville, running in, benefited from a lovely deflection that took the ball past Carson and into the Gwladys Street net. First Blood to the Blues!!!
A fantastic atmosphere resulted in Goodison, amidst the pouring rain, with the crowd for once roused by some determined football from Everton. It was full-blooded for a while, with Villa responding better to the crowd's enthusiasm, coming close on a couple of corners. An hour up and perhaps time for Moyes to affect a change? Arteta readying himself... but Everton started playing up, wining a corner. Arteta then came on for Fernandes with 25 mins left.
Lescott needlessly gave away a free-kick wide on Everton's left, which Laursen headed back dangerously. But Everton cleared the danger and broke well, Arteta to Johnson, whose high cross forced a corner. Arteta's high cross/chip forced Carson into a lunging save. Villa's failure to respond with a goal of their own seemed to visibly deflate them.
O'Neill rang the changes, bringing on attackers for defenders, and showing some determination of his own, the result being instant: A corner, a striker, a goal, Agbonlahor with Osman totally overpowered as his marker, scoring with a fearsome finish, . How would Everton react, the wind well out of their sails with 10 mins left.
Moyes responded with Anichebe on for Johnson. And the result was instant, a great cross from Carsley, Yobo sneaked in behind Mellberg and absolutely screamed the ball into the roof of the net. Goodison was ecstatic. But up the other end, and Villa popped in another equalizer, Barry floating a similar ball in to Carsley's, and Carew finished it off.
Last minute and a corner to Everton: Yobo with a fierce header at the far post but it was blocked away. But back Everton came and won a foul in injury time on the edge of the Villa Area. Arteta... off the wall,, disappointingly.. Handbags between Anichebe and Harewood. Everton pushing hard for a strong finish and a fourth yellow card for the Blues. That's how it ended. Some good exciting football and a great second half from both teams.
And the fight for fifth place remains wide open, with Villa's run-in looking distinctly better than Everton's....
Blues fail to press home advantage
Everton's struggle to recapture the form that elevated them to one-time top-four material continued at Goodison Park today as they twice surrendered a precious advantage over Aston Villa, their rivals for Uefa Cup qualification. Leading 1-0 and then 2-1 with five minutes left of regulation time, the Blues allowed Martin O'Neill's men back into the game with questionable defending and left the door open for the Midlanders to edge them out of fifth place.
Recent absentees, Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman, both underwent fitness tests before the game, but only Osman was deemed fit enough to start, the Spaniard having to make do with a place on the bench alongside Tony Hibbert who made way for Phil Neville to return to right back.
And, after much criticism for some anaemic performances in recent weeks, things started positively enough. Yakubu had the game's first shot, a fierce drive from a tight angle that flew wide of the target, while Osman had a scuffed effort deflected behind and Gareth Barry wasn't far off with a measured drive after Manuel Fernandes has been dispossessed near the halfway line.
Then, with 18 minutes gone, Yakubu surged down the left and smartly out-muscled Nigel Reo-Coker before powering inside and forcing a diving parry from Scott Carson in the Villa goal. Unfortunately, Fernandes fluffed his attempt to drive home the rebound and an excellent chance was gone.
The initial excitement soon gave way, though, to more tediously one-dimensional play from Everton as they repeatedly opted for the long ball rather than match the visitors' penchant to move it quickly along the deck. For long periods of the first half it was Villa who looked like the home team and the side with the top-four aspirations while their hosts struggled to find a team-mate with even the most routine passes.
No real surprise then that the closest either side came to a goal was after half an hour when Ashley Young crashed a free kick off the crossbar after Phil Jagielka had felled Olof Mellberg with a clumsy challenge on the edge of the box.
Whatever words or objects were thrown around by David Moyes in the Everton dressing room at half time appeared to have the desired effect, though, as they started the second half with similar vigour to the manner in which they'd started the first. And had referee Phil Dowd had more courage, they might have finally been awarded their first penalty of the season when Stilian Petrov stopped Lee Carsley's superb drive with his arm just inside area but, predictably, nothing was given.
Five minutes later, the Blues took the lead anyway. More excellent work by the mercurial Yakubu ended with a slightly disappointing cut-back that slid behind the on-rushing Johnson and Osman but fell invitingly to Neville who struck it goalwards and benefited from a wicked deflection that carried it past Carson and into the net. 1-0 and the Everton to which the fans had become accustomed before the post-Fiorentina slump seemed to have been reawoken.
But Villa are a dangerous side and, as their 15 goals in their last three league outings proved, are capable of scoring goals. They nearly drew level within six minutes of falling behind too, when Tim Howard batted John Carew's looping header behind and Fernandes had to clear off the line from the resulting corner.
Moyes's attempt to kill the game was to usher in the return of Arteta midway through the second period but, to be honest, he needn't have bothered. The Goodison favourite failed abjectly to live up to his stellar reputation; the man he replaced, Fernandes, hadn't been a whole lot better, though, so it was almost a case of like-for-like... except the Portuguese is fitter.
Nevertheless, the Blues showed purpose and desire to put the game beyond Villa and Carson had to be wary of Steven Pienaar's curling cross-cum-shot and palm it behind for a corner in the 70th minute.
A game that had seen a poor first half and got substantially better after the interval exploded into a pulsating finale, though, in the last ten minutes. It was in the 80th minute that Everton's good work was undone when a Barry corner was allowed to reach an unmarked Gabriel Agbonlahor about eight yards out in front of goal and he fired it past Howard to level the game.
Rather than fold, however, Everton replaced Andy Johnson with Victor Anichebe and hit back inside three minutes, though the source of their second goal wasn't much more likely than had been the first. The Villa defence cleared a corner only as far as Carsley whose sweet, curling ball back into the box found Joseph Yobo in acres of space and he finished in the style of any top-class striker, sweeping a side-footer high into the goal.
That should have been that, but the five minutes left on the clock were enough for one more crucial defensive lapse. Less than 90 seconds after Everton's second goal, Villa attacked and the home rearguard backed off giving Barry all the time he needed to dink an inch-perfect ball in to the equine frame of Carew. He beat Joleon Lescott by a head and nodded into the corner past a static Howard to earn a point for his side.
Stung back into offensive action, Everton piled forward in the closing stages and were almost rewarded with a match winner when Yobo's header from a free kick was cleared off the line by Petrov. And when a final opportunity for glory came Arteta's way with a direct free kick in a perfect spot on the left edge of the area, the Spaniard failed to deliver, striking straight into the wall rather than testing Carson.
A draw against a resurgent Villa, who were coming off a run of results that had brought them to within touching distance of an Everton side for whom fifth place or better seemed a mere formality a couple of weeks ago, is a decent result, particularly when you factor in just how poor the Blues have been in recent weeks.
It shouldn't disguise, however, a highly disappointing first-half display or the fact that, having led twice, Moyes's boys should have closed the game out and virtually assured Uefa Cup football for next season.
The onus was on the likes of Osman, Fernandes, Arteta and Pienaar to engineer victory from midfield but none of them seemed able to rise to the challenge. Instead, it was Neville and Yobo who scored the goals and Carsley who provided a stellar assist for the second, while Yakubu too often dropped too deep and Johnson was again chasing lost causes and lamenting another match without a clear-cut scoring opportunity.
The mission for the Blues is now clear: carve out at least a point from next week's visit to The Emirates — by no means the worst place to go when you're in need of a result if you're prepared to give it a real go — then beat Newcastle United on the final day and 5th place is guaranteed. Fail to get those four points needed and we can be sure that Villa, who entertain Wigan and then travel to West Ham —with a goal difference advantage now to boot — have what it takes to steal fifth from us.
In a season that's had its fair share of important fixtures, Everton are squaring up for what could prove to be the most important of the campaign. Aston Villa, now just three points behind after hitting top form at a time when the Blues' has gone in the opposite direction, visit Goodison Park this weekend knowing that victory would see them leapfrog into fifth place and put them in pole position for the Uefa Cup qualification berth.
11 goals by the Martin O'Neill's side in their last two matches has obliterated Everton's previously handsome goal difference advantage and given Villa the upper hand on that score too. Quite simply, if the Blues are to claim that prized Uefa Cup spot and the accolade of "best of the rest" — the minimum satisfactory return from a season that promised so much — then they have to win... something they have found very difficult since that defeat on penalties to Fiorentina.
Along with the European hangover, Tim Cahill's intangible effect on the side has been cited as a major factor in the Blues' recent slide. So too have been injuries to other key personnel and plain fatigue but as the fixture calendar has thinned out with each cup elimination, that excuse becomes less and less valid — well, physical fatigue anyway; mental fatigue is another matter...
The good news is that Mikel Arteta should return to the starting line-up after another spell on the sidelines with that troublesome groin and stomach complaint that has disrupted his season and Leon Osman is also in contention after missing the last couple of games with an injury of his own. Add in another week's worth of training and fitness for Steven Pienaar and David Moyes's side is arguably as well placed as it could be going into this weekend's crunch game.
There have been calls from some quarters for a return to 4-5-1 for this match but it's a formation that hasn't worked consistently without the presence of Cahill in the line-up. It could be effective if Moyes is prepared to commit numbers forward in attack to support Yakubu but all too often he drops deep to collect the ball and the service to him has been almost non-existent in recent weeks. The same goes for Andy Johnson who is regularly criticised for not scoring enough even though his chances-per-game ratio over the past few matches is ridiculously small.
The five-man midfield could work, though, with Arteta, Pienaar, Osman and Fernandes providing the ammunition and additional attacking threat, ably supported by Lee Carsley in the holding role.
The momentum is clearly with Villa and the pessimists amongst us can see the disappointing headlines on Monday morning already but the fact remains that, for the majority of this season, Everton have clearly been the best team of the so-called "bottom 16" and it would be a travesty if they miss out on Europe after being in such a good position to gatecrash the top four.
They have the talent and the ability to beat Villa... the key to whether they do or not probably lies in their collective heads.
May appear here later
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