A breath of fresh air... a high-profile debut (Diniyar Bilyaletdinov finally making the starting line-up); new referee's assistants (two more to patrol the goal-lines); a new Everton Captain (Joseph Yobo wore the armband, with Neville out for 3 months), a fresh face on the bench (Shkodran Mustafi), a new signing just before the game (Lucas Neill, out of contract with West Ham)... and the best news of all... Osman dropped!
An early injury to Jeraldo, over-extended his knee in a rash clash with Jo, and went down in a heap.
The first corner came in from and in strolled Yobo to plant a perfect header off Bilyaletdinov's delivery; 1-0. Good start.
From the third corner, after 17 mins, Everton got a second, Sylvain Distin prodded the ball into the far corner after a good touch on from Fellaini. Later, Route One from Distin right on to the head of Jo and his header was very close, going just the wrong side of the post.
AEK finally settled and started to get forward. but the real action was at the other end and a great piece of work from Steven Pienaar, who leathered in a glorious shot that flew into the back of the net.
Cahill did a great tackle but the AEK player Leonardo died a thousand deaths and was rewarded with a yellow card for the Aussie. David Moyes decided the prudent thing would be to withhold Cahill for the second half with three goals in the bag, and put Osman on in his stead.
Bilyaletdinov, who had played well on his debut, came off early in the second half after getting a knock. Yakubu came on in his place. Then defender Araujo kicked Distin in the goolies, and was shown a straight red card.
Kafes went in the book for protesting. Ironically, Baines was then tripped in the area, right in front of the new byline official, who was either unimpressed or overruled by the referee.
Jo made it four with an excellent first touch, quick turn and shot when initially with his back to goal as the ball came to him following some nice work by Yakubu.
The game finished on a sour note when Saha got shoved on an Osman free-kick and raised his arm slightly on the chest of his attacker, who collapsed like a sack of spuds. The Ref, suitably taken in, showed Saha a ridiculous red card. But a far, far better all-round display from Everton, adventurous football with at one stage THREE strikers on the pitch!!!!
If the Premier League is night for Everton right now then the Europa League is day, such was the difference between the Blues' approach to this evening's comprehensive dismantling of AEK Athens under the floodlights at Goodison Park which brought David Moyes level with Harry Catterick on 11 European wins.
A hugely impressive debut by Diniyar Bilyaletdinov in which the Russian laid on the first two goals from corner kicks was only part of the story — after all, Moyes's teams showed in their exciting run in the Uefa Cup two years ago that European competition is to their liking and that it can bring out the passing game in them that has been so sorely lacking in the league thus far this season.
They were in control of this first game in Group I from start to finish and the fact that Tim Howard barely had a save to make all game was testament to that. And while a late red card for Louis Saha soured an otherwise excellent evening, there was plenty for the home fans to take away in terms of optimism at the final whistle.
Chief among them will be the promise shown by Bilyaletdinov who, in an enterprising first half in which the Blues effectively put the game beyond the visitors, served up two goals from dead-ball situations, showed some wonderful touches and whipped in a number of dangerous crosses from the left.
Most tellingly, with his first real contribution of the match, he demonstrated the power inherent in being able to get the ball past the first man from a set-piece. Steven Pienaar, playing right of centre to accommodate the Russian on the left, had won a corner after his surging run and low shot had been denied by Saja in the AEK goal when the 'keeper pushed his shot wide.
Bilyaletdinov swung the ball to the back post and there was Joseph Yobo, captain in the absence of the injured Phil Neville, in all the space he needed to plant a header into the empty side of the goal.
Seven minutes later, Bily fired a corner from the left-hand side to the six-yard line but while Marouane Fellaini's side-foot volley was blocked by a defender, the ball fell invitingly to Sylvain Distin who stabbed it home at the back post. 2-0 and the Blues were in complete command.
The Greeks tried to respond and both Kafes and Nsaliwa, an early substitute for the injured Geraldo, narrowly cleared Howard's bar with decent long-range striker, but it was Everton who carried all the threat. Distin headed Bilyaletdinov's dangerous free kick back across goal to Jô but his looping header dropped onto the roof of the net. Then, Distin picked the Brazilian out with a raking pass from deep in his own half — one of the few long balls employed on the night and a very good one it was too — but the striker's header dropped a foot the wrong side of the post.
Not to be denied, though, the Blues made it 3-0 eight minutes before the break when Pienaar, superb throught the first half, collected the ball 25 yards from goal, set his sights and sent a laser-beam shot past the 'keeper. A terrific strike to cap a wonderful display in the first 45 minutes.
Moyes rang one change at half-time, withdrawing Tim Cahill for Leon Osman, presumably to protect the Australian from a suspension after he picked up a harsh booking just before the interval. And Bilyaletdinov lasted only another six minutes before he succumbed to what looked like a groin injury and was taken off in favour of Yakubu.
Three minutes after that, AEK's task became almost impossible when Araujo was flashed a straight red card for flicking his boot back into Distin's nuts, leaving the defender writhing on the ground clutching his crotch.
With most of the hard work done, Everton were able to relax a little in the second half but they continued to move the ball around nicely and they were still creating chances. Rodwell tried to his replicate his feats against Sigma Olomouc in the last round but his low drive was saved by Saja and Osman saw a scissor-kick fly wide and another effort blocked.
It might not have been until 12 minutes from time that Athens carved the Blues open for the first time and Ismael Blanco might have seriously tested Howard had Yobo not stepped in a done enough to prompt him to fire wide of goal from about 10 yards out.
A minute later at the other end, Saha, who had replaced Pienaar 10 minutes earlier, was teed up nicely by Leighton Baines' enterprising run to the byline but he scuffed his shot over when it might have been easier to hit the target.
In the end it was Jô, who has been eclipsed thus far by the French striker's early goals this season, who delivered the final nail in AEK's coffin. Yakubu did well to fake his marker out and progress down the left side of the penalty area and though his center was blocked by a defender, it deflected nicely into Jô's path and he took one touch, turned and fired low past the 'keeper to make it 4-0.
That should have been that, particularly as Blanco had wasted AEK's last chance of scoring a consolation when he fired straight at Howard in the 90th minute. But as Osman fired an injury-time free kick into the head of the first man, Saha got into a tussle with Juanfran and made the mistake of raising his arm to the defender's face. Juanfran's pathetic play-acting suckered the referee into brandishing a second red card of the night and despite his protestations, Saha was forced to trudge off down the tunnel facing a three-match suspension.
Everton may well appeal the decision but while it's clear that the Athens player's reaction was what swayed the official, a Uefa ruling is unlikely to overturn the ban because Saha raised his hand to an opponent's face.
It was the only real blemish on a fine display, though, one that was notable for the ease with which the Blues stroke the ball around and the efficient manner in which they despatched their opponents. There good performances all over the pitch. Fellaini, in particular, was excellent for the most part, tidy on the ball and determined in tracking back, and Rodwell commanded the midfield to great effect.
Dan Gosling deputised superbly at right back, although even he might admit that the near total lack of threat down AEK's left flank meant that the had the freedom to operate as more of a wing back than a defensive fullback. Likewise, Baines had a good game down Everton's left and Bilyaletdinov showed all the signs of being just as good a link-up man down thaty flank as Pienaar has been. And after being singled out for criticism in my preview, Jo deserves mention for a hard-working display that was ultimately rewarded with a well-taken goal.
All in all, great stuff from a team that laid down the gauntlet to the other teams in Group I. Next up, BATE Borisov who lost 2-0 at Benfica this evening but first a chance to translate some of this European form to the Premier League against Blackburn on Sunday.
Everton embark on their Europa League Group I programme with a home clash with AEK Athens where they'll be looking to shrug off their Premier League woes with another good showing in European action.
David Moyes will not be without his selection problems for the visit of the Greeks, though, with Phil Neville's injury layoff compounding a chronic lack of availability at right back — Johnny Heitinga is ineligible having already played in the Champions League for Atletico Madrid and Tony Hibbert is suspended following his red card against Sigma Olomouc.
Seamus Coleman, the only natural right fullback who could deputise has not been included in the squad and it looks as though Dan Gosling will be asked to step into the role.
Neville's absence from midfield paves the way for Diniyar Bilyaletdinov to make his full debut after starting the last two matches on the bench. He was an unused substitute at Craven Cottage last Sunday but made a brief appearance the week before against Wigan and the Goodison faithful will now get their first good look at Everton's £10m summer signing.
Although he primarily operates wide left, Bilyaletdinov can play anywhere across the midfield but it's likely that Moyes will play him in the position he most regularly occupies for Russia. That would mean Steven Pienaar either moving to central midfield where he was so impressive for South Africa in the Confederations Cup this summer, or switching flanks to perhaps accommodate Marouane Fellaini alongside Jack Rodwell.
Up front, Louis Saha appears to have shaken off the hamstring strain that kept him out of the defeat at Fulham and, assuming Yakubu is still not deemed fit enough to start, the Frenchman may get the nod over Jo who was generally poor at the weekend but who does have a decent record at Goodison Park.
AEK will be something of an unknown quantity for most Evertonians but after a rocky time of things off the pitch, they qualified for the inagural Europa Leage after finishing 4th in Greece's Super League and missed out on this season's Champions League when they lost in the playoffs. Like Everton, they were also runners-up to Olympiacos in their domestic cup final in May.
Naturally, with Portuguese giants Benfica in the group, it's going to be vital that the Blues get off to a winning start in Group I and Moyes will be hoping for a repeat of the form that carried his side to a 100% record at this stage of the competition two seasons ago.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2009-10 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Other media reports|
|4 the Game||Report|
|Cahill :42' (46' Osman)|
|Bilyaletdinov (51' Yakubu)|
|Pienaar (68' Saha)|
|Subs not used|
|Jutkiewicz (on loan)|
|Ruddy (on loan)|
|AEK ATHENS (4-4-2)|
|Geraldo (13' Nsaliwa (46' Manduca))|
|Leonardo (46' Yahaya )|
|Subs not used|
|Group I Scores|