VIEW FROM THE BLUE
If there was a fitting way in which to if not entirely erase then at least dramatically lessen the pain of last weekend's last-kick defeat to Aston Villa, Everton found it at Eastlands when Tim Cahill rose above Micah Richards to head into the empty corner of Joe Hart's goal and seal three richly deserved points for an Everton side stripped of its last recognised striker before kick off.
Victor Anichebe followed Yakubu, Louis Saha and James Vaughan onto the absentees list when he failed a late fitness test on a back injury that blighted his chance to shine against Villa six days ago, leaving David Moyes with little choice than to deploy Cahill as a makeshift striker at the pinnacle of the 4-5-1 formation made so effective with the Australian in midfield.
When the fourth official's board went up to signal two minutes of added time, the match felt simultaneously like a job well done and an opportunity missed for Everton. Against the self-appointed "richest club in the world" — around whom the kind of blue-sky transfer talk that would have sounded ludicrous prior to their Middle Eastern takeover has already started in earnest —Moyes's side had delivered an assured and surprisingly potent performance that deserved more than the goalless draw that seemed inevitable as the clock ticked past the 90-minute mark.
So it was unbridled jubilation that met Cahill's 92nd-minute header met by the traveling Blue hordes who had made the short trip down the M62, but also a healthy measure of relief; relief that having looked more like the home team for long periods of this game and created the better chances, their side had been rewarded with the spoils.
The striker crisis currently afflicting Moyes's team selections evoke memories of when Steve Watson was pressed into action as an emergency and, perhaps not surprisingly, ineffective forward a few years ago. This, however, was light years from that virtually impotent period under Walter Smith and with a bit more fortune in front of goal, Everton might have got their winner a good deal earlier.
It wasn't until 13 minutes in that City showed any of the quick-fire passing football in around the opposition box that has helped them become the second-highest scorers in the league so far. By that time, Leon Osman had brilliantly engineered space for a left-foot shot with some delightful footwork, only to drag his effort inches wide of the far post, and Mikel Arteta had cannoned a free kick off the underside of the crossbar from 22 yards. Having ballooned a shot rugby conversion-style from open play and a similar distance a few minutes earlier, the Spaniard had adjusted his sights almost perfectly and Marouane Fellaini might have done better with the rebound than send it back onto the top of the woodwork and over with a looping header.
The hosts when they did get going, however, threatened to have the Blues on the rack with the speed of their movement and the intricacy of their passing, as evidence by a spell just before the quarter-hour mark when Stephen Ireland chipped Benjani Mwarmaru's lay-off narrowly over and Tim Howard denied Robinho's strike with a one-handed save.
But it was Everton who carried the greater threat and they might have had a penalty in both the 18th and 26th minutes. First, Richard Dunne climbed all over Fellaini as he headed behind for a corner from which the Belgian nodded well wide with a free header. Then, Michael Ball appeared to drag down Osman as the pair challenged for a Fellaini cross but with the away sides baying for a spot kick, referee Mark Halsey waved play on.
Elano then stung Howard's palms with a powerful shot that the American parried and Arteta almost beat Hart with a searing drive of his own but the City 'keeper performed an impressive mid-air adjustment to beat his effort back with one hand as an entertaining encounter continued to promise goals.
None came before the half-time break, though both sides had their chances to break the deadlock , not least when Benjani found himself in the clear having lost Phil Neville but what was potentially the best chance of the half evaporated before he'd gone 10 yards, the ball getting tangled under his feet and a Blue shirt moved in to hack it away.
Then Segundo Castillo, returning from obscurity to fill the void left by Cahill's move into a forward role, gave the ball away cheaply to Shaun Wright-Phillips and he surged forward and skimmed the bar with an Exocet four minutes before the interval.
Not surprisingly given the pattern of play thus far, it was Everton who had the last word when the excellent Steven Pienaar slipped a neat ball down the touchline to the equally impressive Joleon Lescott but his cross was inches from the lunging toe of Fellaini. Cahill won the ball on the other side, though, and Osman fired his pass to Fellaini about 8 yards out. Unfortunately, Hart was on hand to perform more heroics and palm his low shot around the post.
Everton, long criticised by their fans for an inability to keep the ball were admirable in the manner in which they maintained possession for long spells in this game. Demonstrating some of the patience learned during last season's Uefa Cup campaign, they bided their time to work openings and their cause was aided by the fact that from back to front every player was having a good game.
And they picked up after half-time where they'd left off by creating the first chances of the second half. Cahill glanced a free kick a yard or so wide before Neville bombed down the right flank, the City of Manchester Stadium's boos in his ears, and his cross was skipping through to an open Cahill at the back post before Pablo Zabeleta intervened and headed the ball behind for a corner.
City's chances few and far between and their fans became increasingly restless as the game wore on. Having picked up a knock in the first half, Benjani was withdrawn by Mark Hughes at half time and replaced with £19m Brazilian, Jo. It was testament not only his frustrations since arriving from CSKA Moscow but also Everton's dogged defensive resilience that he wouldn't get a sniff of goal until the 86th minute when he headed a corner wide of Howard's goal.
Indeed, his introduction didn't alter the pattern of play at all. Robinho, carrying an ankle injury of his own, remained a peripheral figure and a few flashes from Elano and Ireland aside, their only real threat seemed to come from Wright-Phillips, and even then it was fleeting.
With 18 minutes to go, Ireland latched onto Hart's punt downfield and after a superb first touch had carried him through the center of Everton's midfield, Howard was again called upon to push his attempted side-footer to safety. The Blues' 'keeper almost dropped a clanger with a couple of minutes left of the 90, though, when he, somewhat inexplicably, pushed Elano's shot up into the air and, having caught the ball again under his crossbar, almost carried it over the line under the attentions of Wright-Phillips.
And that appeared to be that. Cahill had visibly tired around the hour mark and was increasingly less able to do chasing required as the lone attacker and Fellaini continued his headlong rush towards his 10th yellow card — and consequent suspension — with his requisite booking right on 90 minutes.
But when Castillo knocked a high ball forward towards Cahill, Dunne had little option than to head it away and Hart was unable to prevent it from rolling behind for a corner. Osman floated the ball right into the mixer, Cahill rose above Richards and steered home the winner to send the visiting fans ballistic.
There was a moment of panic from the restart when Elano almost nipped in at the death but Moyes's boys held out for a precious victory that went a long way to atoning for the disaster and heartache against Villa.
If the Premier League table were based on away performances alone, Everton would be third and if only home points counted, they'd be second from bottom, and that's the story of the Blues' season so far. Away from the pressures of Goodison Park, they're performing like Champions League qualifiers but their home form is a huge cause for concern, particularly with genuine title contenders in the form of Chelsea coming to Liverpool L4 next Monday.
It's unclear whether Anichebe or Saha will be fit enough to play but if the Blues put in this kind of performance again next week, then they should be fine. And credit must go to Moyes for over-seeing a fine display notable for the manner in which his midfield players rotated in and out in their support of Cahill in forward areas.
Fellaini in particular, despite a poor opening 15 minutes in which he must have given the ball away four or five times, did very well and was unfortunate not to score. Pienaar was tenacious and lively, Osman likewise, Arteta repeated his excellent turn at White Hart Lane a fortnight ago to control things in the middle, and Castillo steadied the ship with some neat passing and important tackles.
Of course, the victory would not have been possible without another dominant display by the back four who, while not being challenged nearly as much as one might expect by a talented City side, stood tall when it mattered and kept their hosts at bay.
Hughes remarked after the game that neither side deserved to win the game but even with royal blue-tinted spectacles removed that was a disingenuous thing to say. An Everton team with no strikers had no business beating a team packed with so much talent but they did so with a spirited performance and were not flattered in the least by the win.
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