Tim Cahill was a welcome surprise return to the side, required to no doubt soften up the tough Brummies before Landon Donovan is brought on for his final appearance before returning to LA Galaxy of the MLS in USA. Yakubu led the front line with Saha not fit enough to make the bench, with James McFadden on the Birmingham bench.
Everton attacked from the start and won an early corner. Arteta later got in close but put the ball onto the roof of the net. It was almost 20 minutes before Pienaar ran in himself and curled in a great shot that Hart did very well to parry away for a corner. It was followed by a diving header from Cahill but it was too close to Hart. The game was then opened up though a lovely gola from Anichebe, after a great ball played in to him from Arteta, a great finish after an excellent period of Everton pressure.
As if that wasn't a good enough start, it was soon followed by a textbook finish when Pienaar got a lovely cross over Hart, the ball hanging nicely for Yakubu to head home easily for a great second goal that put Everton firmly in the driving seat inside 25 mins. But this is Everton, and Birmingham came back into the game when a soft ball came through Jagielka's legs, Howard didn't react and Jerome flicked the ball past him.
Bowyer was finally booked after his usual bout of antics and niggles as the home side invested the credit from their surprise goal. Birmingham came close to an equalizer when Dann could have headed home after Baines failed to clear the ball with a weak header across goal. Jagielka got beaten by Ridgewell, who then blasted it over Howard's bar as Everton struggled to regain control of the game.
Anichebe got trodden on by Ridgewell and needed some attention before the break. Carr set up Jerome with a late run, and came close to an equalizer before half-time. But inside the 2 mins of added time, Everton won a free-kick that Baines played in well, forcing Hart to save again.
Second half and Pienaar looked to get a handball awarded when his shot his a defender's arm. Everton had been looking comfortable but Route One from Birmingham and Gardner smashed it home past Howard to equalize. Birmingham increased in confidence, well Everton retreated more and more into their shell as the hour mark passed with no substitutions yet from David Moyes. Everton were not holding the ball well, and Yakubu got booked for a silly block of a free kick for a silly foul given away needlessly.
67 mins and Moyes finally decided to bring on Landon Donovan for his farewell cameo in place of Yakubu. Pienaar won a good free-kick from Carr that Arteta swung in low and poor. McFadden came on for Birmingham. A huge chance for Cahill, with support either side, he just could not hit the ball properly. Should have scored. Off he went after that, replaced by Rodwell.
Anichebe landed awkwardly and looked to be in trouble and was replaced by Dan Gosling with barely 10 mins left. McFadden got past Jagielka and came close with an effort that he claimed was deflected wide.
A brief flourish right at the end won a corner but Heitinga headed over and that was it. A moment of such promise after two quick goals, but the loss of control from that point on was disappointing.
Everton tossed away a well-earned two-goal lead by conceding a pair of soft goals that allowed Birmingham back into a match that was careening away from them in the first half hour. For the second time in the League this season, the Blues surrendered a position of dominance to Birmingham and then couldn't find a way to force home a winner as their performance fizzled out in the second half.
Landon Donovan started what could be his last match for Everton on the bench, Victor Anichebe preferred on the right flank for the third game running, a curious decision on the face of it but one that seemed to be vindicated in the 19th minute when the big forward smashed home the opening goal.
A fairly even opening had been quite in terms of penalty area incident until Steven Pienaar forced a top-class save by Joe Hart, the young 'keeper tipping his curling shot around the post at full-stretch. Two minutes later, though, Phil Neville collected Mikel Arteta's raking pass, fed Anichebe and after neatly turning his marker and setting himself, he belted a left-foot shot past the 'keeper. It was a terrific strike that belied the young striker's unspectacular reputation
Everton had complete control of the midfield, Birmingham were being forced into errors all over the park and three minutes later the Blues put them firmly on the rack with a second goal. Pienaar twisted and turned Liam Ridgewell superbly by the byline before chipping the ball into the six-yard box where Yakubu made no mistake by heading home from close range.
2-0 and David Moyes's side were flying... but just four minutes after that, they gifted their hosts a quick avenue back into the game. Scott Dann had put Ridgewell into acres of space behind Neville with a deftly flighted pass and he laid it back to Fahey who in turn swept a dangerous cross into the box that Cameron Jerome, benefting from two yards of space afforded him by Phil Jagielka, helped on with the slightest of touches into the far corner.
The iron grip Everton had had on the midfield battle seemed to relax after that and the sense of belief visibly began to build in Birmingham. Jagielka had to be alert to hack Dann's header down away a yard off his goalline and then denied Christian Benitez with a stretching tackle as the striker tried to steal between the two central defenders.
At the other end, Everton had gone worryingly quiet and apart from Leighton Baines' stoppage-time free kick that Hart again pushed away to safety, they didn't really threaten again before half time.
The Blues came out from the interval with purpose and had created their first chance within two minutes. Yakubu held up the ball nicely before laying it off to Pienaar but when his goalbound shot clearly struck Roger Johnson on the arm and the traveling fans bayed for a penalty, referee Lee Probert waved play on. The trend these days appears to be to allow accidental handballs go which is all well and good if it's applied consistently and if it doesn't prevent the more deliberate-looking infringements — like when the ball came off a defender's arm for a second tiime just two minutes later — from being given.
City's first goal and the shift in momentum it brought had ushered a sense of inevitability of an equaliser and the leveller duly arrived in the 52nd minute. Hart's long kick downfield was flicked on by Jerome, who won a physical tussle with Jagielka, and it bounced perfectly into the path of the onrushing Craig Gardner who swept a first-time shot past the despairing dive of Tim Howard.
Moyes's side had lost the upper hand and didn't really seem to know how to get it back. What had worked so well in the first half — quick passing and energetic movement — had given way to a more direct approach at times as Birmingham began closing them down mkore rapidly and more effectively. Anichebe, in particular, had drifted out of the game while Tim Cahill, back after a calf injury, had never really been in it. The Australian was strangely anonymous but when the fourth official's board went up, it was Yakubu's number that flashed up alongside that of Donovan.
Anichebe was moved up front and he almost combined perfectly with Cahill with 15 minutes to go, the midfielder latching into a knockdown, advancing into the box but then shooting tamely as Dann came in with the tackle. Unfortunately, Cahill was injured in the challenge and had to go off with what looked like a recurrence of his calf problem. With Louis Saha unfit and James Vaughan questionably having been allowed to join Leicester City on loan, Moyes had no real attacking options left so it was Jack Rodwell who came on to replace him.
And two minutes later, the Blues' problems were compounded when Anichebe pulled up with a knee injury as he tried to keep the ball in by the left touchline. He too was forced to limp out of the action and Dan Gosling came on.
By this stage, the match had dragged to a stalemate, with two sides more or less cancelling each other out. Another uncharacteristic error by Jagielka when he was caught in possession in his own area let James McFadden in but the ex-Blue thankfully fired wide from the angle and apart from a John Heitinga header off a corner in the last minute of injury time, Everton didn't really threaten the home goal.
So, an away point but definitely an opportunity missed because apart from a number of second-half corners, McLeish's men didn't really cause the Blues many problems in front of goal— the problem, of course, was that apart from brief flashes here and there, Everton weren't creating much themselves in the later stages of the game. Yakubu was becoming increasingly isolated and could count himself as unfortunate to be substituted.
Donovan didn't really get a chance to get into the game and by the time Gosling and Rodwell were introduced there wasn't much incisiveness to the Blues' play, save for a glimmer of a chance late on when Gosling almost got between two defenders but his stabbed effort was blocked.
Part of it was the home team effect as Birmingham fed off their home support and markedly improved but part of it also was that familiar inability on Everton's part to deliver a consistent level of performance across 90 minutes away from home. The foundation was there: Heitinga was again impressive in the holding role — Lee Carsley in steroids — efficiently moving the ball around and disrupting attacks; Arteta was everywhere, pulling the strings going forward; and Pienaar, when he wasn't being kicked, pulled and checked by Lee Bowyer, was energetic and inventive. The two goals aside, the final product was lacking all too often, though, as a conistent threat down the flanks.
A chance to leapfrog Birmingham and gain ground on Aston Villa spurned but the Blues are at least back on home soil next where they face Bolton next weekend.
With 10 games left of the Premier League season, Everton turn down the final straight with repeat European qualification in their sights.
Birmingham City, their immediate rivals in the chase for what may yet turn out to be three Europa League-qualifying spots, are their next obstacle after the comfortable surroundings of Fortress Goodison provided the platform for a return to winning days last Sunday against Hull City.
The Blues have now won six straight at home but their away form remains patchy and this match-up against a Brum team that has only lost twice on home soil so far this season, won't be an easy one. As David Moyes's side found out in the FA Cup tie between the two sides in January, Alex McLeish has put together a tight unit founded on a stingy defence, but they have faltered a little in recent weeks, a 15-match unbeaten run in all competitions giving way to away defeats to Fulham, West Ham and, most recently, to Portsmouth in the FA Cup — though they gained revenge over Pompey last Tuesday with a 2-1 win at Fratton Park.
Tim Cahill and Louis Saha are close to returning from respective calf and thigh strains but will probably not be risked from the start this weekend. That will mean Yakubu continuing up front, though Landon Donovan might replace Victor Anichebe on the right flank in the match that could be his swansong for the Blues this season.
In midfield, Leon Osman is ruled out with the injury that forced him off prematurely against Hull so Jack Rodwell is likely to come in; in defence, Moyes is unlikely to change the Phil Jagielka-Sylvain Distin pairing so Johnny Heitinga will continue in the holding role.
Everton have struggled for consistency on the road this season — not just throughout the season but also within matches — but if they can rediscover the level of performance that almost reaped rich dividends at Arsenal, then anything is possible. Birmingham are unlikely to afford them the space to play they want to but it's important they don't resort to the long-ball profligacy that characterised their frustrating display in the Cup tie at Goodison.
Three points, though, would vault Everton over Birmingham and, depending on how results go elsewhere, bring them closer to the clutch of clubs above them between 7th and 5th.
|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|
|Gardner (59' Larsson)|
|Benitez (72' McFadden)|
|Subs not used|
|Anichebe (82' Gosling)|
|Cahill (76' Rodwell)|
|Yakubu :62' (67' Donovan)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Saturday 13 March 2010|
|Sunday 14 March 2010|
|Monday 15 March 2010|
|Premier League Table|
|After 15 Mar 2010|