Everton took a giant stride towards the last 16 of the Uefa Cup with a handsome 2-0 win in Bergen thanks to goals by Leon Osman and, of course, Victor Anichebe, the Blues' own Euro star himself.
After Osman's first-time rocket had broken the deadlock just short of the hour mark and put Everton in command of this two-legged tie, Anichebe doubled the advantage with two minutes left of the 90 handing David Moyes's side a second away goal and preserving their 100% record away from home in this competition at a time when SK Brann were threatening an equaliser.
Shorn of Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar through injury, Moyes was able to name a pretty strong starting line-up nonetheless. Yakubu returned after being dropped for the weekend win over Reading for returning late from the Africa Cup of Nations and it was he who had the first shot on goal after just 30-odd seconds, a bobbling effort that was safely gathered by Hakan Opdal in the Brann goal.
A minute later, his strike partner, Andy Johnson, tried his luck with a shot that was deflected and it too trickled into the 'keeper's grateful arms as the Blues made a positive start to what promised to be a tricky tie on a difficult surface. Indeed, despite a heavy pitch, Everton employed a more patient and pass-orientated brand of football that has been the case for a few weeks now. While they were moving the ball well, though, they weren't really posing too much threat on Opdal's goal.
Osman fired a fairly tame effort straight at the goalkeeper and Lee Carsley, putting in another ponderous performance in the middle, had two awful shots that went nowhere near the goal. In between, though Osman took advantage of great work by Johnson by collecting his pass back from the byline and curling a shot that Opdal palmed away at full stretch.
After Azar Karadas' header flashed over the bar following Cahill's glancing header, Brann's first half was characterised by a succession of incidents where they got the ball quickly into the Everton area in search of Heldstad and Karadas but the ball either bounced unfavourably off a leg or a Blue shirt — more often than not Phil Jagielka — got in the way to break things up and get the ball clear. Tim Howard was largely untroubled until first half stoppage time when a corner was swung in under his crossbar and the ball ended up in the back of the net. The "goal" was rightly disallowed, though for a dual infringement — Eirik Bakke not only jumped into Howard but the ball bounced off the underside of the bar and into the net by way of the midfielder's arm.
Half time yielded no changes from either side and Everton picked up where they left off, showing the greater purpose and incisiveness and it looked as though they had finally made the breakthrough eight minutes after the restart when Tim Cahill, hitherto anonymous, picked the ball up on the edge of the box and blasted a terrific shot off the face of the post. TV replays suggested that Opdal may have got the merest of fingertips to it; if so, it was a superb save.
The Blues only had to wait another five minutes before they did score, though. Cahill clattered into an opposing player in midfield but won the ball — in the Premier League it would almost certainly have been a foul but the Bulgarian officials this evening were far more content to let the game flow — and Yakubu came away with it. He fed AJ who got to the byline and crossed and when the ball was headed out only as far Osman, the midfielder sent it back with interest, driving first time into the far corner. A fantastic finish, reminiscent of a similar strike against Larissa back in October.
Conceding the goal was the home side's cue to step up their game a little which they gradually did, aided enormously by the introduction of Demba-Nyren with 21 minutes to go. After the mercurial Manuel Fernandes had forced Opdal into parrying an awkwardly bouncing shot behind, the Angolan striker took advantage of the space allowed by Everton's retreating defenders and brought an excellent save from Howard.
From the resulting corner, the Blues' defence stood still as the ball flew all the way to the back post to Helstad but Howard pounced on his header just as it was about to cross the line. The Brann fans claimed a goal but looked as though the decision was correct and Everton had survived.
Having weathered that little storm, Moyes's side went on to double their lead when Anichebe, a 76th-minute replacement for the industrious Johnson, latched into Joleon Lescott's inch-perfect cross and tucked the ball neatly passed the stranded goalkeeper. TV replays would confirm that the big striker was half a yard offside but given Everton's raw deal from officials this season and the fact that they were deserving winners on the night, no one of Blue persuasion will mind.
This was a strange performance overall. On the one hand, the Blues were able to string together some really nice passing moves on a bobbly pitch, exhibiting some of the patient build-up play that they honed over the course of their Group A campaign. On the other, they were just as apt to give the ball away cheaply — Neville was again the chief culprit but Fernandes, apparently playing despite a groin complaint, also found a red short as often as he picked out a Blue jersey with an incisive pass that no other Everton player woud try — and the defence looked vulverable at times without ever looking likely to concede. Time seemed to slow down every time Brann got the ball into the area and their lack of match sharpness let them down in key areas.
2-0 away from home in the Round of 32 of the Uefa Cup is a brilliant result, though, and while the scoreline may have been a little harsh on Brann, Everton always looked the stronger side. Even before the goals went it, you got the feeling that the Blues would have too much for the Norwegians in the second leg and, on this evidence, they are in an almost unassailable position going into the second leg.
Howard: Called upon to make a couple of vital saves and did so well. 7
Neville: Not as bad as he has been in the past couple of games but his passing was still woeful at times. 6
Lescott: It's not often — it's almost unheard of, in fact — that one can say that Joleon didn't play really, really well but tonight he had a bit of an iffy game by his standards. So often he looked slow and lacking agility when going forward but a bad Lescott performance is most people's good display and his cross for the second goal was right on the money. 7
Yobo: Not sure you could point to any one incident for criticism but he didn't seem as rock solid as usual. 7
Jagielka: Often the last line of defence and the immovable object at the heart of the Blues' defence. Like Yobo, he may have looked a little shaky in allowing the ball to drop to the feet of the front two on a few nervy occasions but made up for it by getting the ball away with the minimum of fuss. 8
Carsley: On the basis of the last few games, he's starting to look like a 34 year-old player. Could probably do with a rest. 6
Cahill: Got better as the game wore on and was unlucky not to score with a tremendous strike early in the second half but he's still looking off form at the moment . 6
Osman: Much more like the player that did so well before getting injured before Christmas. Between him and Fernandes, was the midfield inspiration. His goal was a cracker. 8
Fernandes: Given his talent, you expect more from Manny than he has shown since returning last month but it seems that criticism for his not having taken control of the game more than he did this evening should be tempered by the fact that he was carrying a groin injury. Made some excellent passes but also passed straight to a red shirt on a few annoying occasions. 7
Johnson: Once again worked his socks off for little reward in terms of goalscoring chances and got buffeted about without winning the kinds of free kicks that are routine in the Premier League. 8
Yakubu: He needed to show some commitment to the cause and did with some good hold-up play and a willingness to drop deep and either help out in midfield or coe and collect the ball when needed. 8
Anichebe (on for Johnson): Put himself about in typical Vic fashion andn scored his customary late Uefa Cup goal to put the icing on the cake. 7
Hibbert (on for Fernandes) and Baines (on for Yakubu): Not on long enough to judge.
After an interval of almost two months, Everton resume their impressive Uefa Cup campaign in Norway with a Round of 32 first leg game in Bergen against SK Brann.
While the Blues have been churning through a fixture list that has seen them play nine times since the turn of the year, Brann have been keeping their squad with friendlies seeing as the Norwegian league is in its close season right now. They finished the 2007 season as champions of the Norwegian Premier League, though, for the first time since 1963.
Everton's last Uefa Cup match, the 3-2 win in Alkmaar that secured a 100% record in Group A, saw them deliberately field a changed line-up as they were already assured of topping their group. This time, however, David Moyes will be forced to name an under-strength line-up because of injury.
Aiyegbeni Yakubu is recalled to the team after being dropped for the home win over Reading for disciplinary reasons and Victor Anichebe is also included after recovering from a knock but the Blues will be without the creative heartbeat of the team after both Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar stayed behind on Merseyside in order to recover from injury. Pienaar hasn't played since leaving for Africa Cup of Nations duty at the beginning of January but Arteta's absence with a groin complaint comes as a bit of a shock.
No Mikel: Everton will have to do without Arteta
That means that Moyes will be short of choices in midfield and the burden of inspiration will likely fall on the shoulders of Manuel Fernandes who has yet to put in a consistently good performance since returning on loan in mid-January. The hope is that the Portuguese will revel in the occasion of a European cup match, albeit one that is likely to be a very British-style affair.
The manager is likely to opt for a 4-4-2 with Andy Johnson and Yakubu playing in front of a midfiel quartet of Tim Cahill, Leon Osman, Fernandes and Lee Carsley. Phil Neville, Joseph Yobo, Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott and Tim Howard are expected to round out the rearguard.
The substitute's bench provides opportunity for an appearance for the likes Dan Gosling, Jack Rodwell — who made his senior bow in Alkmaar — and Andy van der Meyde.
Despite the loss of Arteta, the Blues will have a pretty strong starting line-up and one that should be able to secure the draw at least that they'll need to take back to Goodison for the return leg eight days later.
Although Brann finished third in their group behind Basel and Hamburg with four points, they'll be no pushovers, particularly given the goal threat of Thorstein Helstad who has scored 26 goals in 34 appearances since joining them from Rosenborg two years ago. Ironically, the winner of this tie could face Helstad's old club in the next round if they, Rosenborg, can overcome Fiorentina.
May appear here later
|2007-08 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Other media reports|
|4 the Game||Report|
|SK BRANN (4-4-2)|
|Dahl (Thwaite 89)|
|El Fakiri (Huseklepp 75)|
|Karadas (Demba-Nyren 69).|
|Subs not used|