COLUMNIST PAUL TRAILL
Gary’s new Audi aside, the conversation was solely about how Everton wouldn’t get a better chance to get to Wembley as for once in this season’s FA Cup run the draws been pretty kind to us for this stage of the competition. We HAD to make the most of this great opportunity.
Katja and I left the others to it a bit early and so were in the ground well, well in time for kick-off. Gary arrived later pretty much bang on kick-off. The atmosphere was buzzing. Even the Middlesbrough fans, normally with such a sparse following, must’ve seen the importance of this one as they’d almost taken up their entire allocation.
Once AGAIN, we lost the toss and so attacked the Lower Gwladys in the first half. As we knew, there wasn’t much Moyes could do with his team selection. With Jo ineligible, Saha not quite there yet and Yakubu, Anichebe and Vaughan all injured, he had little choice but to play Cahill alone up front with Fellaini providing support where and when possible.
Like Cahill, Osman and Pienaar passed their fitness tests so got to play the flanks, whilst Rodwell started in central midfield alongside Neville. As with Wednesday’s drab encounter with Blackburn Rovers, Moyes also went with Jagielka at right back. This seemed to ignite mixed reviews amongst supporters with many feeling it was a mistake as Neville could play there of course and so too could Jacobsen. Myself, I felt he did the right thing. Neville’s been playing so well in the middle it seems silly to remove him from there, particularly when we don’t really have sufficient cover. Jacobsen’s yet to feature so throwing him into a game like this would be insane so Jagielka seemed to be the most able man to stop Stewart Downing. The referee was Mark Halsey. Come on you blues!
Middlesbrough certainly started a lot better than we did and put us under a bit of pressure early on, though Everton did battle their way back into the game with Fellaini in particular making a nuisance of himself and Neville snapping away in the midfield. The referee did a good job of letting the game flow amidst several players getting stuck into this one, in what were difficult blustery playing conditions.
Despite Everton’s probing, it was Middlesbrough who created the first real opening in this game when Aliadiere looped his effort well over the crossbar when presented with a decent chance. Gary had gone for his pint long before I went for an emergency burst when play had stopped. The queue for the toilet was simply unprecedented as far as I can remember, and I don’t know what happened whilst I was in there but it did retrieve a massive groan from the crowd and when I got back we had a corner which was comfortably dealt with by Middlesbrough.
Osman wasn’t happy with the referee when he gave a free kick to Middlesbrough for a nothing coming together between he and one of their players. This led to a free kick which, just as we were all pretty much settling for a half time re-group, Middlesbrough inadvertently scored from. It was David Wheater who did it though I’ve no idea what actually happened. All I really recall is somebody heading it goalward, Howard seemingly making a good save, and then a second more desperate save.
The ‘boro players all jumped for joy and their fans went wild. The clock read 45 seconds left in the half. I was just stunned. At half time Moyes had it all to do.
Katja, who was unable to get a seat next to me, came to see me at half time, telling me about the rather unpleasant words coming out of the fans around her. Welcome to matchday!
I don’t know what the hell Moyes said to his troops at the interval but by God It worked. He was bold and decisive, taking off Rodwell, who’d hardly seen the ball, replacing him with Louis Saha. The game could have turned out so much differently had Arsenal reject Jeremie Alliadiere not have screwed wide with a sitter just after half-time. Now that was a let-off but Everton did head the warning and really stepped up to the task from then on in.
It was a super effort in the second half but a few players in particular were extremely instrumental in their outstanding turnaround:
Marouane Fellaini — I’m not just talking about his headed goal that got us back in the game, but more so his all-round nuisance value that got under the skin of the Middlesbrough team. His contribution to set-pieces is just priceless, even when the ball goes nowhere near him, as he causes such a distraction to defenders. A superb display by the giant Belgian.
Tim Cahill — It was his persistence and eventual cross that was turned in by Fellaini to get us level in this one. I felt he was dicking around a bit in the first half but he sure made up for it in the second. We all know he has a couple of limitations but he doesn’t half make up for them with his attitude and competitiveness.
Phil Neville — The skipper deserves a mention. Often maligned throughout his career, I challenge anyone to question his quality this season. He was there countless times today, biting in with the tackle and breaking up play, with decent distribution to accompany that.
Joleon Lescott — It seems he’s well and truly shut of his early season form. He was colossus at the back today and distributed fantastically well going forward. A class performance.
The winner came when a deep cross by Osman was chased and collected on the left hand side of the penalty box by Pienaar. He clipped a good cross back in which was headed home clinically by Saha. Goodison erupted. You felt we were going to Wembley but it wasn’t that straightforward… we had over half-an-hour still to play.
Whilst Middlesbrough did a decent job of maintaining a foothold in the game, we could certainly have made the game safe before they seriously threatened. Leighton Baines was unlucky not to open his account for Everton when his dipping free kick bounced off the top of the crossbar and away, whilst quite how Saha cleared the crossbar so spectacularly with his chance when superbly set up by Jagielka, I’ll never know.
Middlesbrough weren’t finished yet and it took some exquisite defending by Yobo and Lescott to keep out Tuncay when he had what looked to be a decent opening. Stewart Downing somehow ran into the box unchecked though thankfully his control let him down and the ball ran through for a grateful Howard.
It was getting tense but then, to cap it all, I think in injury time, Middlesbrough got a free kick. It was hit feebly straight at Howard who somehow spilled it into the path of a Middlesbrough player. Thank God Lescott was on hand to mop up and get the ball out.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, Halsey blew his whistle and Everton had secured a trip to Wembley for the semi-final of the FA Cup. The scenes after the whistle were reminiscent of the derby win back in the 4th Round.
Due to prior arrangements I couldn’t join Ste and Gary for a celebratory tipple after the game but on the way back they did reliably inform us that Manchester United lie in wait for us in the semi-final. Of all the three tie’s we could have got, this is obviously the hardest one but, given what I’d seen, I feel this Everton side just does not know when it's beaten and we know for sure that Moyes will be doing his best to plot victory in this one.
We’ve done it the hard way so far, now so be it if that’s what we have to do to go all the way. Congratulations Everton. Nothing is impossible.
Player Ratings: Howard: Wasn’t as commanding as he can be and almost cost us there at the end. Nah, not a good afternoon for Howard. 3
Baines: Was clearly being targeted by Middlesbrough in the first half due to his height, and then had Stewart Downing to contend with in the second period which was obviously a tough assignment. He coped OK I guess though got caught out a few times. Unlucky with that free kick which struck the bar. 6
Lescott: Had a very commanding game at the back. 9
Yobo: Coped well though distribution; not fantastic. 7
Jagielka: As solid as always. Got forward well from right back also. 8
Neville: A colossus display in the middle from Neville. Really is at the top of his game at the moment. My man of the match. 10
Rodwell: The first half completely passed him by and then he was subbed. 4
Osman: Had a good, if not spectacular, resourceful game throughout. 7
Pienaar: Stuck at it, working tirelessly and got his rewards with the cross which set up the winner. 8
Fellaini: Didn’t give the defenders a minutes peace. I don’t know what on earth his doubters are talking about. 9
Cahill: He stepped up to the task in the second half and really did play a big part in Everton’s win today with a monumental battling display. 9
Subs: Saha (for Rodwell): Took his goal well and missed his sitter spectacularly! Seriously though, you can really tell he’s top class and, if we can keep him fit for the rest of the season, it will certainly lessen the burden on many of the other players. 7
Gosling (for Pienaar): Not on long. Can’t judge.
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