VIEW FROM THE BLUE
Everton are into the last eight of the FA Cup for the first time under David Moyes after convincingly seeing off high-flying Aston Villa at Goodison today to earn another home tie with either Middlesbrough or West Ham.
In emerging victorious from what was an absorbing contest with a two goal victory, they became the first team to beat Martin O'Neill's men in domestic competition for three months... and they did it again without any of their first-choice strikers, without their record signing, the injured Marouane Fellaini ,and with two teenagers in the starting line-up. Testament indeed to the spirit, cohesiveness and determination of the team that Moyes has built.
From the first minute, the Blues demonstrated their unflinching desire to both gain revenge for the painful 3-2 defeat they suffered at Villa's hands in December and to progress in a competition that has not treated them very kindly under Moyes's tenure. Not since the last match of his predecessor's reign have Everton played in an FA Cup Quarter Final and the favourable draw for the 6th Round gives them every opportunity of qualifying for a cup semi final for the second year running.
Brad Friedel found himself called into action in the first minute, fisting away a corner, and defender Craig Gardner had to glance a MIkel Arteta free kick behind a couple of minutes later as the home side pressed in the early stages. From that second corner, Tim Cahill looked to have scored yet another headed goal from a set piece but Stilian Petrov stopped his net-bound effort on the goal-line with his hand.
While Goodison awaited the referee's whistle for a penalty and what would surely have been an automatic red card for the Bulgarian, Jack Rodwell reacted quickest to the rebound and fired high into Friedel's net from the angle to make it 1-0 after just three minutes. By converting the chance, Rodwell probably spared referee Martin Atkinson the need to send Petrov off, a decision which could have had serious ramifications for the character of the remainder of the contest.
Petrov wasn't even cautioned and, echoing the back-and-forth nature of the league meeting, Villa were level just three minutes later on their first attack. Gabriel Agbonlahor raced past Tony Hibbert to latch onto a perfectly-weighted Petrov throughball and as he entered the area, the Everton right back committed himself with a desperate lunge that sent the England striker tumbling to the turf. No arguments; a cast-iron penalty and James Milner duly converted, albeit highly fortuitously — Tim Howard guessed the right way and got a hand to it but the ball deflected into his body and squirmed into the net.
1-1 but while equilibrium in the scoreline had been restored, Everton were still very much in control. Victor Anichebe, restored to the team after Leon Osman was ruled out with a stomach strain, glanced a Cahill cross wide before the Australian used his arm to connect with Arteta's deep centre and was booked for his trouble despite protestations that he was pushed. The yellow card means that he, like Hibbert, will miss next weekend's game at Newcastle through suspension.
Midway through the first half, though, Everton regained the lead they so richly deserved and it represented something of a confirmation of Anichebe's rehabilitation after his falling out with his manager. Showing some of that youthful lack of inhibition that made him such a star in the Uefa Cup last season, the Nigerian international picked up the ball in the middle of the park and surged through the Villa defence before being felled by a clumsy tackle by Steve Sidwell. Replays may show that he was already heading to ground before the Villa midfielder made contact but the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Arteta stepped up, sent Friedel the wrong way and tucked his kick into opposite corner to put the Blues back in the driving seat. And with a little consistency from Mr Atkinson, they would have been 3-1 up two minutes later after John Carew bundled Cahill over in the area but the referee waved away calls for a penalty for a challenge that would have been a foul anywhere else on the pitch.
Neverthess, the pursuit of a third goal continued, with Dan Gosling, playing somewhat awkwardly on the left side of midfield so that Anichebe could play his frequent wide-right-cum-striker role, driving into the side-netting from 20 yards, Jagielka heading a corner over the bar and Anichebe again causing panic in the visitors' defence with surging runs but dragging wide.
Though they were playing their part in what was an entertaining encounter Villa nevertheless did not look like a team currently occupying third place in the Premier League. Milner was being frustrated by the tight leash on which he was being kept by Leighton Baines while Ashley Young couldn't find his range with crosses from the left. When he did, though, after being afforded too much space by Hibbert, Agbonlahor missed an absolute sitter from five yards out, glancing his header off his shoulder when solid contact would almost certainly have beaten Howard.
Villa were given the opportunity to illustrate their Champions League credentials in the second half, though, as Everton sat back a little more and invited more pressure from O'Neill's side but they continued to meet stubborn resistance from the Blues' back line. Indeed, it wasn't until after the hour mark that the home fans were to have their hearts in their mouths again when Carew's deft flick looked to be sneaking inside the far corner before Howard brilliantly clawed it wide of the post for a corner.
There were further let-offs for Moyes's men when Sidwell bounced a header wide when he could have taken more time and Young blasted a Carew knock-down high, wide and handsome when given a clear sight of goal from 18 yards.
With 14 minutes left, Everton sealed a deserved victory, though. Cahill laid the ball out wide to Anichebe before sprinting into the area to pick up the striker's clever cross with the outside of his boot which eluded Gosling at the near post, was missed by Davies, leaving the Australian to back across the goalkeeper and into the far corner. 3-1 and the Blues were home and dry.
There was a chance to rub salt into the wounds when Anichebe earned a free kick in Arteta territory later on but the Spaniard eschewed the more cultured approach that was the hallmark of his early Everton career in favour of the piledriver shot that has been successful at other times this season and the ball flew well wide.
Late substitutions of Anichebe for Yobo and Arteta for Castillo ran the clock down in the closing stages but Villa were a beaten side and they knew it. Everton were safely through to the Sixth Round and looking good value to go all the way to Wembley on ths evidence.
Stripped once again almost to the bare bones, Moyes's boys still managed to deliver, out-shining the one club that has looked capable of finishing in the top four this season. Not only that, they made Villa look decidedly ordinary.
Hibbert had a less comfortable afternoon than he has become used to in recent weeks and Gosling was a bit hit and miss in that unfamiliar left-side role that made him look very one-footed but they were just nits on a great team performance.
Arteta was simply magnificent in central midfield, pulling strings, breaking up play and spraying passes across the pitch with consummate ease. He was ably supported by Rodwell whose composure on the ball and unflustered demeanour continue to bely his tender years. His first Everton goal will surely not be his last on this evidence; only the uncertainty over his future — rumour has it that a contract worth £10,000-a-week for the 17 year-old remains unsigned — can mar the satisfaction Evertonians took from seeing this Academy graduate look so good.
And up front Anichebe and Cahill led the line superbly in the manner we've come to expect from the latter but have criticised the former for failing to do in the absence of Yakubu, Vaughan and Saha. Big Vic can be proud of the way he played today and it will restore hope that he can prove himself at Premier League level after all.
So, next up is another home tie, against struggling Middlesbrough or improving West Ham but the Blues will feel they can beat just about anyone right now.
Man of the Match: Mikel Arteta
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