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Blues Allow Crouch to End Their Impressive Run

By Lyndon Lloyd :  21/03/2009 :  Comments (0) :

Everton's hopes of unlikely Champions League qualification took a serious dent with only their second defeat in 19 games as two goals by Peter Crouch turned this match on its head by erasing Leighton Baines' fourth-minute strike with two headed goals in either half.

Having drawn disappointing blanks at Manchester United, Newcastle and Blackburn in their previous three away games, the writing was perhaps on the wall for the Blues and their cause was not helped by the loss of Tim Cahill who failed a fitness test on a calf strain and became the latest star player to be ruled out of David Moyes's squad through injury.

The Australian's absence doesn't tell the whole story of this first loss since the end of January, though; having roared into an early lead with Baines' peach of a free kick, and given their impressive defensive record, Everton looked well placed to ride out this game and perhaps add to their tally.

They hadn't reckoned on Pompey's response, however. Spurred on by a raucous home crowd whose voices filled the pokey little south-coast ground, they chased the game, hunting the Blues down like a pack of wild dogs and then won it thanks to two crucial interventions by a giraffe.

Everton, shorn of Cahill's industry and talismanic influence, Mikel Arteta's artistry, and Yakubu's deadly finishing, huffed and puffed in response at the other end but to little effect and crashed to a defeat that probably ends their particiaption in the race for fourth place.

It had started so well, though. Louis Saha, starting a game for the first time in 2009 and partnering Jô up front, was chopped down by Silvain Distin as he tried to accelerate past him on the edge of the area and referee Peter Walton awarded the free kick with less than four minutes on the clock.

Baines stepped up to take it and picked his spot through a wide hole in the defensive wall, whipping a shot in off the upright to the delight of the traveling Everton fans. It was an early reward for an impressive start by the away side but having controlled proceedings for the next 10 minutes or so, they allowed the pendulum to swing back in Pompey's direction.

The home team weren't causing the Blues' defence many problems, though. Niko Karnjcar's curling effort from outside the box that sailed over after 13 minutes was their only effort on goal until Glenn Johnson sliced horribly wide, so much so that the referee assumed it had flicked off Baines' boot and erroneously awarded a corner.

Jô got his head to the resulting ball in from the Pompey left but his clearance went only as far as Kranjcar who swung a cross back into the area. Johnson headed back across goal giving Crouch all the invitation he needed to power through Joleon Lescott and head home. The approach may have been preventable but Crouch is impossible to defend against in that situation; he leapt into Lescott, leading with his arm across the defender's back and barging him out the way.

Everton were clearly knocked out of any rhythm they have developed in the early going and they struggled to make inroads into a home defence that shaken off its early jitters and settled into a pattern of rapidly closing the Blues down before anything significant could develop.

The hole in which Marouane Fellaini operated last weekend in the first 45 minutes and the closing stages of the win over Stoke had proven to be a sweet spot then. Today it was more of a black hole, such was the Belgian's inability to get into the game at all.

In Cahill's absence, it needed someone to take a position of leadership going forward and Fellaini was found wanting. Steven Pienaar assumed the mantle once more but very little went right for him today, though it wasn't through lack of effort,. while Leon Osman's performance again betrayed either a player battling despite not being fit or one who has simply lost whatever it was that had his manager touting him for England last season.

Up front, Saha was also conspicuous by his absence from proceedings and only Jô was really involved in the first half, even if he too was a bit hit-and-miss. The Brazilian had the best chance of the first 45 minutes when he found himself in a glorious position in between Distin and Sol Campbell but perhaps through lack of belief he eschewed the opportunity afford by the space to take another couple of touches and fired lamely wide from 18 yards.

Everton began the second period in a similarly purposeful mood to that with which they'd started the first but, again, there was a lack of fluidity and guile and they consistently let themselves down with the final ball. The insistence on trying to pick out the forwards with angled punts downfield was understandable given the vacuum in central midfield but once they'd won the second ball there was a frustrating tendency to run down blind alleys rather than find either Jô or Saha with a telling ball.

Jô did have a shot from an almost impossible angle saved in the first minute after the restart, though, and caused palpitations in the hearts of the home defence when he gloriously skinned Younas Kaboul for pace down the left but Pienaar wasted the attack by chipping a wayward cross onto the roof of the net.

Pompey for their part were still not really troubling Everton at the other end and it wasn't until an hour gone that Tim Howard had his first save to make. Crouch had cleverly clipped a ball forward that released David Nugent in on goal but the American 'keeper raced off his line to close the angle stopped his shot brilliantly.

15 minutes later, though, they got the winner from another corner. Not so much the 800lb gorilla in the room as the the 6'7" giraffe on the pitch, Crouch was left unmarked by Lescott and Fellaini as the cross came in and he had the routine task of burying his second header of the game into Howard's goal, the 'keeper completely taken out of the situation by Kanu's pre-meditated barge.

It was now Everton's turn to chase the game but, again, it was with the final ball that they kept letting themselves down. It wasn't for lack of effort and debutant Lars Jacobsen was showing every sign that he could be the answer to one of Everton's longest unresolved weaknesses — namely an old-fashioned overlapping full-back on the right flank — but three of his crosses were all met by a wall of Blue shirts and Saha and Jô remained starved of opportunities.

A late, last throw of the dice by Moyes when he took Jacobsen off and threw Dan Gosling reaped no dividends and it was Portsmouth and not Everton who almost added to the score tally when Sean Davis thundered a volley off the outside of the post.

In all, another fairly impotent display by the Blues away from home and clear evidence that there is a point where too many key injuries provide the straw that breaks the camel's back. On another day without someone with Crouch's almost unnatural height, Everton might have held out for a slender 1-0 win or, with some of those vital missing players, gone on to increase their advantage.

Moyes will now be hoping that the fortnight's break for internationals allows Cahill the time he needs to recover and him the time to refocus his players on the final eight games. Arsenal hitting form again probably means that the Champions League dream is gone but fifth is there to be claimed from Villa and there's always the likes of West Ham lurking behind us to take advantage of any collapse in form.

Player Ratings: No one really covered themselves in glory but Fellaini and Saha were virtually anonymous... though how much you can really blame either is up for debate seeing as the ball was usually being launched in their direction rather than fed into space where they could cause some havoc.

Jô tried hard for the most part and seems to have stepped up his efforts off the ball but chasing long balls isn't his style either. Pienaar was perhaps the most industrious going forward when he and Osman weren't being kicked all over the place but the players to emerge with arguably the most credit were the fullbacks, Baines and Jacobsen, with the former edging the Man of the Match award for a terrific goal and some nice attacking moves down the left.

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