Life without Mikel Arteta began with victory for Everton and while the two-goal margin didn't tell the whole story of a game West Bromwich Albion may feel aggrieved to have lost, three points for the Blues is all that matters at the end of the day.
Having lost the Iberian magician for the rest of the season and then also been deprived of Jack Rodwell because of an injury suffered in last week's draw the Newcastle, David Moyes had to deploy the unfit Marouane Fellaini in central midfield as he sought to do the double over the Premier League's bottom club.
Chances for the home side may have been few and far between but they scored from two and held out at the the other end — just! — to claim three points that, thanks to defeat for Wigan and a fourth-successive goalless draw for Arsenal, puts more distance between themselves and the Latics and brought them to within two points of the Gunners.
The first half was all well and good for the Blues. Though they gave up more possession they might have liked and were out-passed by a West Brom team that plays a pretty but often ineffective game, particularly away from The Hawthorns, they acquitted themselves well enough despite the disruptions in midfield.
Tim Cahill, more or less playing up front with Jô, was at the heart of all the Blues's best moments in the first 45 minutes, narrowly missing out on an early chance when Scott Carson got a fist to Leighton Baines' deep cross, being unfairly pulled up by referee Steve Bennett for a foul on Robinson, and almost being provided with a gilt-edged chance by Dan Gosling's header but he hadn't anticipated it and couldn't connect with the ball.
Jô, by contrast, was having to do most of the hold-up play and spent a good deal of the game playing with his back to goal. His touch deserted him on a couple of occasions and his lack of full fitness was obvious on a couple more but, on the whole, to these eyes he put in a decent shift despite the criticism leveled at him by some fans afterwards.
Not surprisingly, given the void left by Arteta and the fact that Fellaini is probably still playing with the benefit of cortizone injections to quiet a fractured vertebra, it was in midfield where there was a general lack of impetus.
The Belgian was most successful when he kept it simple — his more adventurous passes went astray — but was clumsy when the opposition had the ball, allowing a number of attacks to go by him with a missed tackle.
As incisive as the Midlanders could be, though, they were restricted almost entirely to long-distance efforts in the first half. Fortuné forced Tim Howard into his first save with a tame effort after 10 minutes and then repeated the feat four minutes later, before Koren flashed a half-volley wide after 18.
Their best chance fell to Fortuné just past the half-hour mark when he latched onto Clinton Morrisson's smart through-ball and attempted to flick it over the on-rushing Howard, but the American did brilliantly to close down the angle and block the shot with his leg.
Nine minutes before the break, though, when Pienaar was fouled by Donk wide on the left and Baines whipped in the free kick, Cahill emerged from the defensive line completely unmarked and powered a header past the stranded Carson to hand Everton the lead.
It could have been 2-0 four minutes later when Steven Pienaar played a neat one-two with Fellaini but the South African couldn't get enough behind his shot and Carson saved comfortably.
Given their plight at the wrong end of the table, the desire to atone for a poor performance at Fulham last weekend and the fact they were now a goal down, it was not surprising to see West Brom take the game to Everton a bit more in the second half.
Koren led the charge when he surged through the middle nine minutes after the restart but he drove wide of Howard's right-hand post, while Morrison fired left-footed across goal and wide.
Just short of the hour mark, though, the visitors had Evertonian hearts in their mouths when Chris Brunt's corner was headed firmly towards the near-post corner of the net by Donk but am impossibly deft touch by Phil Jagielka on the goalline flicked the ball up and into his goalkeeper's grateful arms.
Fellaini, who had looked out of sorts anyway before allowing Donk to beat him easily in the air for that chance, was withdrawn a couple of minutes later and Louis Saha was introduced for his fist signficant action since recovering from a hamstring tear.
And it only took him nine minutes to settle the contest with a goal almost out of nothing thanks to a moment of world-class ability. Pienaar managed to get his foot in ahead of a defender to prod the ball to Saha a yard or so outside the box and with one flick of his instep he'd wrong-footed his marker and opened up a shooting opportunity from 20 yards. One sweep of his left foot later and he'd sent a raking shot fizzing inside the far post.
While Moyes made plans to change the substitution of Jô he was planning from Joleon Lescott to Segundo Castillo, Baines finished an impressive move by sliding the ball square to Pienaar but his shot from close range was beaten away by the 'keeper.
While Tony Mowbray's side continued to play the better football overall, their way back into the game looked lost until three minutes from time when Luke Moore unleashed a thunderbolt from 25 yards out that rattled off the crossbar and back into play. And they closed out their vain attempts to get onto the scoresheet with three almost identical efforts across the face of goal by Moore, Teixeira and Morrisson.
Though they had their moments, compared to other more impressive displays this season this was not a great performance by the Blues. Though Leon Osman showed a few nice touches after replacing the flu-affected Tony Hibbert on 25 minutes and Gosling was his usual mix of youthful exuberance and inexperience, it was Pienaar who took all the plaudits in midfield on his first game back from injury.
He was a constant thorn in WBA's side, flitting around in his familiarly dragonfly-eqsue style and frequently tearing forward towards the opposition defence. The man-of-the-match accolade would be a toss-up between him, Baines and Jagielka who was, once again, phenomenal in defence, displaying an uncanny reading of the game.
After Manchester United's Carling Cup win over Tottenham, Moyes's boys look a very good bet to qualify for next season's Uefa Europa League by finishing at least 6th. The top four may be a little optimistic on this evidence even given Everton's form over the past couple of months and the Blues' abiilty to conquer potential Sky Four opposition in the last four of the FA Cup if they can get past Middlesbrough on Sunday is also in question.
Everton have shown nothing if not resilience, though, so it'll be a case oe one game at a time and seeing if the likes of Cahill, Jo and Saha can be the keys to success this term.
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|2008-09 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
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|4 the Game||Report|
|Hibbert (26' Osman)|
|Fellaini :54' (61' Saha)|
|Jô (75' Castillo)|
|Subs not used|
|Van der Meyde|
|WEST BROM (4-4-2)|
|Valero (53' Greening :84')|
|Fortune (89' Teixeira)|
|Simpson (58' Moore)|
|Subs not used|
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|Saturday 28 February 2009|
|Sunday 1 March 2009|
|West Ham||1-0||Man City|
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|After 1 Mar 2009|