Sunshine at Craven Cottage for the last game of the season, and the usually pre-match speculation over the team David Moyes would select to take that 5th spot for a second year running... or would he save players for next weekend's rather special trip to Wembley?
Fellaini was rested, giving the increasingly impressive Jack Rodwell another start while Hibbert reclaimed the right-back slot from Jacobsen. The game was pretty cagey to start, although Louis Saha hit the bar, climbing high above Aaron Hughes to meet a cross from Leon Osman.
The game opened up eventually with both sides prepared to advance and threaten. But it took until the stroke of half-time for Leon Osman to round Schwarzer after running on to a lovely ball in from Pienaar, and slot the ball across the line with Aplomb. A nicely taken goal showing deceptively confident ball skills from the little Turk.
On 72 minutes, a certain Olivier Dacourt, once of this parish, came on for Fulham in place Gera, while Moyes responded by bringing on Dan Gosling in place of Phil Neville, who may have been nursing an injury .
With 10 mins left, and the game flagging in the warm sun, Lous Saha was replaced by Segundo Castillo. Zamora nearly scored off a superb long ball over the Everton defence. And for the last 5 mins, on came James Vaughan in place of Steven Pienaar.
With the game just about over, Hibbert played in Leon Osman again, and he had plenty of work to do, taking the ball under control and curling a beautiful shot wide of Schwarzer, into the Fulham net for a fabulous finish to the game. Where has this lad been all season? This was by no means the hopeless passenger we've suffered with for many a long month...
So, two excellent goals for Leon Osman, a wonderful finish to a season that started horribly, with Everton unable to win at home for 2½ months. But things eventually turned around, and what better way to confirm 5th place again to finish with a victory at Craven Cottage, where they had not won since 1966... And the news from elsewhere was even better, with Newcastle being relegated.
There can't have been many Evertonians who felt confident after last summer's transfer fiasco and the awful start to the season that come the end of the season, the Blues could finish fifth in the Premier League for a second successive season. Indeed, some of the doom mongers were predicting a struggle in the lower half of the table, others felt that achieving repeat qualification for Europe would be challenge enough.
Nine months later, and David Moyes has not only steered his team to an FA Cup Final — and in so doing secured a contingency European berth in case his league campaign faltered — but also again clinched fifth place and the title of "Best of the Rest" thanks to Everton's first victory at Craven Cottage since 1966. Yes, 1966, the year that the Blues won the FA Cup, conquering Manchester United in the semi-finals... omens for next Saturday's showpiece at Wembley against Chelsea?
The fans may have one eye on the Final but if his team selection was any indication, Moyes, having claimed fifth place last week with victory over West Ham, was determined to keep hold of it before turning his attention to Wembley. After all, finishing sixth would have necessitated an unwanted extra qualifying game in August ahead of the group phase of the Uefa Europa League.
Of the manager's usual starters, only Marouane Fellaini was rested, replaced by Jack Rodwell, and Louis Saha was given another 80 minutes to improve his sharpness and fitness before surely being handed the responsibility of leading the line against Chelsea. Tony Hibbert returned at right back and Jô, who didn't figure at all, will almost certainly have played his last game for Everton seeing as he is cup tied for the Final and would be out of Moyes's price range this summer.
The Blues started strongly and it took Saha just three minutes to rattle the home side's crossbar with a salmon-like leap and superb header off Leon Osman's cross which cannoned off the woodwork before the Frenchman was pulled up for a high foot as he tried to pull down the rebound.
Rodwell than had a speculative drive from 20-plus yards saved down low by Mark Schwarzer and Tim Cahill also failed to trouble his compatriot unduly with an attempt to curl the ball around him after 16 minutes and sliced effort after 26 that flew wide.
In between, Fulham threatened briefly when Eric Nevland screwed a shot across the face of Tim Howard's goal and Zoltan Gera first powered a header into the goalkeeper's arms from close range when he connected with Paul Konchesky's cross, then fizzed a shot narrowly over as Phil Neville backed off.
Most of the attempts on goal from both sides came from outside the box in the first half hour and Steven Pienaar tested Schwarzer with a stinging drive from 25 yards before Rodwell's second effort drifted away from goal.
Everton remained the more purposeful and inventive and the effervescent Pienaar was involved again eight minutes before the interval when he robbed Danny Murphy in midfield, drove forward into space before picking out Saha on the right side of the Fulham area. The French striker hit it first time and arrowed a shot to left of the 'keeper but Schwarzer beat it behind for a corner.
Right on half-time, though, the Australian was not so fortunate. Pienaar again showed determination to steal the ball off Pantsil before looking up and spotting the run of Leon Osman who sprung the offside trap and collected the South African's perfect pass. One touch took him past the 'keeper and he calmly slotted it home from a tight angle to hand Everton the lead.
Despite Fulham's good record at home and greater urgency in their own chase for Europe, the second half started in far more pedestrian manner than had the first. It wasn't until 10 minutes after the restart that the first genuine attempt on goal arrived when Saha latched onto a deep cross and powered a header toward the corner of the goal and Schwarzer pawed it behind.
Fulham didn't threaten Howard's clean sheet for another 13 minutes when Pantsil picked up Dickson Etuhu's pass and fired narrowly wide of the far post, and the Cottagers didn't really create another chance until five minutes from time when substitute Bobby Zamora was picked out by a raking ball forward by Murphy which he controlled deftly but saw his shot deflected away by Howard.
Three minutes later and after both Neville and Pienaar had been withdrawn as precautions against apparent hamstring strains, Everton wrapped things up. James Vaughan knocked Joleon Lescott's forward header to Osman and he drifted inside and danced to the edge of the box before curling a delicious left footer inside Schwarzer's right-hand post.
Fulham, by that stage safe in knowledge that they were in Europe by virtue of Tottenham trailing at Liverpool, had the last word in injury time when Clint Dempsey surged into the six yard area and, with Howard beaten, was denied superbly by Hibbert's last-ditch lunge.
All in all, while at times there was some last-day relaxation and injury-avoidance strategy evident, this was an accomplished display by Everton, one that easily blew away a four-decade long hoodoo on this ground.
Special mention should go to Jack Rodwell who put in a stellar shift in central midfield, spraying the ball around across the middle with the composure of an international-class player superior to his tender years. Strange to think that his manager eventually sees him as a centre back when he seems to be developing so well into a midfield star!
With Manchester City's millions, Tottenham Hotspur's revival under Harry Redknapp and Aston Villa's consolidation under Martin O'Neill, few thought Everton stood a chance of repeating last season's impressive fifth-place finish. Throw in critical injuries to Yakubu, Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka and it really is incredible what Moyes and his team have achieved this season.
All that remains now is for the Blues to cap off another fine season with their first trophy under Moyes. Surely no manager in the Premier League deserves to land his first piece of silverware.
And so to the final match of the 2008-09 season, where Everton are in the driving seat in the race to finish "best of the rest", lying a point ahead of Aston Villa in sixth and with a sufficiently superior goal difference to ensure that Martin O'Neill's side will need to beat Newcastle United at Villa Park if they're going to have a chance of leap-frogging back over the Blues into fifth in the final reckoning.
That will be no easy task — Villa have won just once in their last 11 games, and that a narrow 1-0 win against relegation-threatened Hull City, and the Magpies are in a desperate last-ditch attempt to avoid demotion from the Premier League themselves. They may only need a draw if Hull lose to Manchester United but a draw for Villa is enough for Everton.
Given their awful record at Craven Cottage, the Blues may need that favour from Newcastle. An Everton side hasn't beaten Fulham on their home soil since the 1966, the first league game after that great FA Cup Final comeback, when Alan Ball scored the winner on his Everton debut... But rarely have they looked like ending that hoodoo in recent seasons.
To make matters worse, while the Cottagers usually struggle in the bottom half of the league, this season under Roy Hodgson they have been something of a revelation and currently occupy the seventh and final European qualification place, two points clear of Tottenham and with a better goal difference.
Everton have been erratic since booking their place in next week's FA Cup Final and had won but last weekend's win over West Ham was a welcome return to winning ways at home. And, having won their last away fixture at Sunderland in emphatic fashion, they'll be confident they can cap off what has been excellent away form by winning at Fulham.
Moyes has few injury concerns beyond those players whose seasons were already ended prematurely by long-term injury (Yakubu, Arteta, Jagielka and Valente). Tony Hibbert appears to be fit again after not being deemed fit enough last weekend, while Leon Osman completed 90 minutes against the Hammers, increasing his hopes of starting against Chelsea at Wembley next Saturday.
Assuming he doesn't elect to rest any players, Moyes is really only likely to be mulling changes in two positions: right back, where he may elect to start Hibbert instead of Lars Jacobsen, and up front where he has to weigh up the risk of Louis Saha's susceptibility to injury with the Frenchman's need for match sharpness ahead of the Final.
Jô, his other main option if you discount James Vaughan, who has started just one game all season, hasn't scored an away goal since signing on loan from Manchester City in January, but has proven more adept at playing the lone striker role.
Realistically, though, he could well not risk some of his key players, so there could be more changes to his side when the team sheet is submitted before the game.
Fulham, meanwhile, look to be deprived of Andy Johnson, whom they signed from Everton last summer, after the striker aggravated a knee injury. Giles Barnes is also doubtful but Bobby Zamora should be fit after shaking off a hip injury.
With the injuries they've had and the awful start they made, Everton really have no business being in fifth place going into the final game of the season. It really is testament to Moyes's managerial prowess and the spirit and determination of his players that the Blues are within touching distance of a second successive fifth-place finish and a third successive place in the top six.
No other club outside the Sky Four has been so consistent in the last three seasons or managed to do so well with such limited resources. They deserve to win the "league outside the big four" and hopefully they'll get to boast that feat when all is said and done on Sunday evening.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2008-09 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Other media reports|
|4 the Game||Report|
|Hughes (77' Smalling)|
|Etuhu (69' Zamora)|
|Gera (72 Dacourt)|
|Subs not used|
|Neville (76' Gosling)|
|Pienaar (86' Vaughan)|
|Saha (80' Castillo)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Sunday 24 March 2009|
|Hull City||0-1||Man United|
|Premier League Table|