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Blues Unphased by Feisty Hull

By Lyndon Lloyd :  11/01/2009 :  Comments (0) :

Everton continue to roll on in an impressive run of form as they saw off the surprisingly impotent challenge posed by Hull City — a team that has made "putting it up 'em" a mantra in their maiden Premier League season — to consolidate sixth place in the division and keep Arsenal in touching distance above them.

The performance may not have been spectacular, their two goals proving to be a couple of rare moments of class in an otherwise scrappy and bad-tempered affair that at times felt more like a middle-weight bout than a football match, but a fifth win in six games and another clean sheet, this time against the only English team to have scored in every away league game before today, was no less welcome for it.

And, perhaps inevitably given the pre-match focus on his proximity to a two-game ban that would rule him out of the derby double-header against Liverpool, one Marouane Fellaini was at the centre of most of the action and the controversy. The Belgian international lit the touch-paper for the ill-will that regularly flared up during the game with an elbow to the face of Kamil Zayatte before the first minute had elapsed, scored the opening goal from a clearly offside position, escaped censure when referee Martin Atkinson again missed an infringement with the elbow later on, before picking up that decisive 10th booking two minutes into the second half. Whatever he is supposed to have learned about tackling, challenging legally in the air and not making clumsy tackles has clearly gone over his massively-coiffed head.

The referee, who looked hopelessly out of depth for long periods, may have missed Fellaini's blow to Zayatte after just 56 seconds when the two rose to head Phil Jagielka's long free kick from the back, but the swollen eye and bloody nose that quickly appeared on the Guinean's countenance would have offered Atkinson proof at least of contact.

While the referee was clearly prepared to give Fellaini the benefit of the doubt, Zayatte took his grievances out on the player himself, poleaxing the Everton midfielder with a hefty mid-air challenge that sent his opponent crashing to the Goodison turf like a sack of spuds. The home crowd, with their vocal chords already exercised by ceaseless booing every time Nick Barmby got near the ball, bayed their disapproval as one but Zayatte escaped punishment.

Fellaini, however, received a last, stern warning from the official in the 14th minute, leaving what seemed an eternity between then and the final whistle for the Big Fella to escape that dreaded yellow card.

In the midst of the full-blooded challenges, the niggles, the back-biting and afters, though, Everton took the lead. A nice build-up down the left in the 18th minute involving Leighton Baines and Stephen Pienaar, easily the best passage of play thus far, ended with the full-back swinging in a perfect cross to Fellaini and he glanced the ball past the 'keeper. The number 25 had had a torrid time of it in the opening exchanges and the feelings of validation simply gushed out of him as he celebrated in front of the Gwladys Street end.

Video replays would show that he was a yard offside when Baines struck the ball but given the bad blood that had developed over the previous 17 minutes, no one would really have felt guilty.

After Leon Osman had twinkle-toed his way to the byline and flashed a dangerous ball across the face of Myhill's goal, Fellaini could — and probably should — have doubled his tally. Tim Cahill, again handed striking responsibilities despite Victor Anichebe being fit to play, bent a perfect cross in from the right giving the Belgian a gilt-edged chance to power a header goalwards but, instead, he could only guide it well wide.

For all their dominance, though, Everton weren't troubling Hull's goal often enough. Pienaar, who has been a little off-key for a while now, struggled to make a real impact and Mikel Arteta was all too often guilty of being too nonchalant in possession to dictate proceedings.

Hull, though, just weren't at the races offensively at all. They didn't get out of their half until the 10th minute and the only time Tim Howard looked remotely concerned in the entire first half was when Michael Turner rolled a side-footer a yard or so wide of his upright 10 minutes before the break.

That half-time interval was approaching when Fellaini rose once more to meet a corner from the right and again led with his elbow, this time into Turner's face and if there was doubt over intent where the incident with Zayatte was concerned, there didn't appear to be this time. Fortunately, none of the officials saw it and what would surely have been a straight red card was avoided.

There was still time in the half, though, for Arteta to emerge from his shell, reach into his box of tricks and pull out another blockbusting free kick. Cahill was shoved by Turner 25 yards out and central to the goal and Arteta needed no more invitation than that to set his sights and drive home an unstoppable shot. Reminiscent of his strike against Sunderland and no less deadly, it was a fine way to go into the dressing room.

2-0 up and comfortable, David Moyes had the opportunity to remove Fellaini and perhaps play Segundo Castillo for the second half. But Moyesey's a stubborn bugger and he persisted with his yellow-card magnet in the second period. It had barely begun before he was involved in a high but innocuous-looking challenge and was booked by the referee for one offense too many. The crowd and Moyes were incensed but could not have been surprised... it was just a matter of time.

Having found his plums, Atkinson finally booked Zayatte for flooring Cahill for the umpteenth time and eventually did the same to Turner, Ricketts and Marney, while also erroneously booking the Australian when he collided with Myhill through no fault of his own.

By this stage, the game had fizzled out as a footballing contest. Everton were comfortable and only really threatened when Osman controlled Tony Hibbert's centre before skying his shot and Victor Anichebe, a 72nd-minute replacement for Cahill, was sent sprawling in the area but the referee waved play on.

Hull, meanwhile, started to exert a little more pressure in the closing stages but never looked remotely like scoring until Daniel Cousin headed a deep cross well over Howard's bar three minutes of time. That allowed Moyes to throw Jack Rodwell on for Arteta in injury time and Pienaar and Fellaini to indulge in a little show-boating to run the clock out. It infuriated Fagan so much that he impetuously hacked Fellaini down and he too went into the referee's notebook before the final whistle brought a halt to an ugly but perversely satisfying contest from Everton's point of view.

In terms of the character of this game and the controversy that always seemed to bubbling away under the surface, this was probably a good warm-up for next Monday's Premier League collision with Liverpool at Anfield — though it's safe to assume that a few more of the cards flashed today would have been red had this been a derby game.

Moyes will, of course, have to plan for that game without Fellaini but he could not ask for better form to take into a match against the Dark Side. Six games unbeaten and six consecutive clean sheets, the first time any Everton side has achieved that since Joe Royle's tenure in 1995.

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