Four years since the kopite Mark Clattenburg had refereed an Everton game... Shane Duffy made his first League start as Sylvain Distin is ruled out, while Darron Gibson made his debut after arriving from Manchester United.
Gibson showed early, giving away a free-kick, and his first possession at the other end was greeted with a chorus of "Shhoooot!" from the travelling Blues.
Heitinga got a stern talking too and was lucky not to be booked for a professional clip on Bent and from the free-kick, Petrov really tested Howard with a pie-driver.
A fantastic forward pass from Gibson was perfect for Cahill but his lack of confidence lost him the chance before it really arrived as he totally failed to master the ball.
The defence was getting tested, mostly by mistakes by Drenthe but Duffy cleared solidly when required and the absence of Jagielka meant that they were playing it forward on the ground, but Donovan was getting little support on the right wing.
A superb free-kick from Baines was met perfectly by a Saha header, forcing a good save from Given but Villa cleared the dangerous rebound.
Great pace from Donovan anda fantastic cross that Saha should surely have converted but he allowed pressure from Hutton to hold his arm, yet no complaint from Saha, who could have got a penalty if he had gone down instead of ending up in the net,
Everton's inability to score from numerous guilt-edged chances was underlined by a fierce header from Warnock of all people forced a brilliant reaction save from Given!
Next with a chance was Baines, but from the free-kick he fired over as the Villians became increasingly concerned with the virtual one-way traffic from their illustrious visitors.
Drenthe redeemed himself with a vital clearance for the first corner, that set up Collins with a free header which he sent well over the bar. Fellaini became the first booking by Clattenburg and he was not happy about it.
Another good run and cross by Donovan won a corner but Drenthe's corner was delivered too hard and low.
Everton faded and Villa recovered a little, Agbonlahor forcing another stretching save from Howard. Everton ahead on points at the break, but frustratingly no goals to show for it.
The game was summed up by turgid stuff at after the break, Villa making 20 passes along the half-way line while Everton stood of them and failed to make a single challenge. Everton did surge forward and Drenthe won a dubious free-kick that Fellaini powered in at the far post only to see it hit Given's upper arm.
At the other end Villa somehow failed to score when Howard failed to deal with a corner and was lucky when the follow up found him in a crowded goalmouth.
After some pressure, Everton seemed tpo gift the first goal to Villa, three defenders unable to clear allowing the cross that enabled Bent to scoop the ball into the net, all-too-familiar story... a poor goal to give away.
Drenthe, who had been mostly very poor, was switched out for Anichebe on the hour. Gibson got unfairly penalized for a none-foul when Ireland's leap convinced the linesman it must have been a foul.
A superb piece of play from Donovan picked out the run of Anichebe through the middle and Nigerian scored cleanly to put the Blues back in it within 8 mins of coming on. But then Anichebe twisted his knee trying to stop a throw-in, and had everyone fearing it was another serious injury as he needed lots of attention on the sideline, eventually clambering to his feet after being persuaded there was no permanent damage.
With everything to play for, both sides seemed to settle for the draw, McLeish finally making a move, bringing on Keane,; Moyes's response was to remove Gibson, who had faded badly, apparently through lack of playing time, bringing on Bilyaletdinov.
Donovan again played in Anichebe but his effort lacked conviction, and no-one could put the ball in from amidst a crazy goalmouth pinball session that followed the corner. With 2 mins left, the Moyes masterstroke was to bring on Stracqualursi for Saha after another useless goalless game.
Stracqualursi won a free-kick some distance out that annoyingly required both Donovan and Baines to execute, with Cahill making a lame shot at the end that was hopelessly off-target as another dismal display in the poptastic Premier League dragged to another desperately dull conclusion. And they wonder why the crowds are dwindling... The only 'sabotage' going on here, Mr Elstone, is to the game of football.
It's fair to say that prior to the turn of the year, few Evertonians would have picked Victor Anichebe as the goalscoring saviour on two trips to the Midlands this month. Prone to injury — indeed, he was sidelined for all of the first half of the current campaign — his frustrating the-world's-against-me demeanour and goals return of just one goal in 43 matches had him more or less written off as less than Premier League material.
With a brace of well-taken goals, Goodison's forgotten man has now scored twice as many in the League as his supposedly superior teammate, Louis Saha, has this season, two more than Tim Cahill has managed in 13 months, and earned the Blues four points from the trips to West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa.
If his first was all down to a striker's instincts and quick reactions, his goal at Villa Park owed much to the vision of Landon Donovan to spring the offside trap but it still needed a confident finish past Shay Given to cancel out Darren Bent's 56th opener.
The result was probably a fair reflection of a tight affair between two teams struggling for form, goals and confidence. A tense home crowd had been kept silent by Everton's territiorial superiority in the first half but the Villains managed to reach halftime goalless thanks to the quick reactions of Shay Given.
The Irishman was playing his first game back from injury and though he was spared having to make a save when Tim Cahill failed to make contact with Darron Gibson's enterprising ball over the top, Given denied Saha after 16 minutes with an impressive one-handed save as the Frenchman tried to head Leighton Baines' free kick into the far corner.
Six minutes later, after Saha, looking odds on to bury Donovan's delicious cross into an empty net, appeared to be pulled back illegally by Alan Hutton, Baines whipped another dangerous ball across the face of Villa's goal and Given had to make a reflex save to prevent Neil Warnock from heading into his own net.
The first period was bookended, though, by saves from Tim Howard: the first after six minutes denied Stilyan Petrov from a direct free kick following John Heitinga's poor tackle on Bent; the second saw the American push Gaby Agbonlahor's attempted curler behind for a corner that, thankfully, came to nothing.
So far, so fair for the Blues who were in an all-too familiar mode in the first 45 minutes. Lots of possession against a nervy defence but without the incisiveness to create enough chances to opening the scoring. Gibson was quietly effective in central midfield alongside Marouane Fellaini and made an encouraging debut overall with some confident tackles, intelligent passing and regular availablity for the ball.
But the Blues as a whole were still giving the ball away too much, relying too much on the long ball at times from the back and generally failing to make regular inroads into the Villa defence. The home side topped Everton 4-1 in shots on goal in the first half but while they began the second the stronger team, it was David Moyes's team who almost broke the deadlock.
Royston Drenthe was awarded a dubious free kick in the 50th minute for a "foul" by James Collins and when Baines swung the ball in, Fellaini powered a header that was destined to creep inside the far post before it hit Given's outstretched forearm and ricocheted to safety from Villa's perspective.
A spell of pressure from Alex McLeish's side in which Howard twice had to punch the ball behind in a goalmouth melee bore fruit six minutes later, though. Fellaini and Heitinga got in each other's way as they went for a cross from Mark Albrighton and the unsighted Shane Duffy could only head it back to Stephen Ireland on the right side of the six-yard box. With the Blues defence now at sizes and sevens, he returned it square to Bent who converted from close range to make it 1-0.
Two minutes later, full League debutant Duffy's sole error of the game almost let Bent in for a second off Ireland's dangerous cross when the young Irishman reacted too slowly but the striker powered his header over Howard's crossbar.
With an hour gone, Drenthe's somewhat disappointing afternoon came to an end and Anichebe was introduced and within six minutes of his introduction had scored the equaliser. Donovan broke quickly down the Everton left before coming inside and, spotting Anichebe's run, he split the defence with a perfectly-weighted pass that the striker slotted home with aplomb.
It looked initially as though Anichebe had crocked himself just three minutes later when his leg buckled underneath him as he tried to keep the ball in play on the touchline but he recovered sufficiently to collect Donovan's ball down the right flank in the 86th minute and drive into the box before forcing a save from Given with a drive from the angle.
Overall, though, neither side really looked likely to win it in the last quarter of an hour and things petered out a little. Moyes threw Diniyar Bilyaletdinov on for the tiring Gibson with seven minutes left and it was Denis Stracqualursi and not Apostolos Vellios who got a late cameo but the final chance to set up a dramatic late winner fell to Cahill. Sadly he let fly with a poor shot from miles out and referee Mark Clattenburg called time on proceedings.
One swallow doesn't make a summer where Anichebe is concerned as he has a long way to go to convince his manager and the supporters that he is any solution to the goal drought afflicting the regular starting strikers. What he did, though, in making the run and executing the finish that secured this point for Everton was demonstrate the kind of movement, anticipation and self-confidence that none of Cahill, Saha or Stracqualursi have showed with any regularity this season.
Like the New Year's Day win at the Hawthorns, this draw provides another potential platform on which Everton can build with a home game against a team struggling against relegation in the form of Blackburn Rovers. The onus is on the manager and players to follow through now with a more confident display than the one that condemned them to consecutive defeats against Bolton and Spurs.
Player Ratings: Howard 7, Neville 6, Duffy 6, Heitinga 6, Baines 6, Gibson 6 (Bilyaletdinov -), Fellaini 6, Drenthe 6 (Anichebe 7), Donovan 7*, Cahill 5, Saha 5 (Stracqualursi -)
Crippled by injuries and reeling from back-to-back defeats in the Premier League, Everton play their fifth game in 12 days this weekend when they to Aston Villa, a ground on which they have recorded just one victory in their last 19 matches.
It's a statistic made a little more dismaying by the nature of that solitary triumph as it was one of the finest attacking displays under David Moyes's tenure. A free-flowing Blues side ran out convincing 3-1 winners seven years ago, with Leon Osman scoring twice and in-form Tim Cahill grabbing one to keep Everton in the fourth-place spot they would ultimately claim at the end of the 2004-05 season.
What Moyes would give for three points let alone three goals as Everton try to lift themselves up from defeats at home to Bolton and away to Tottenham that not only left them in the bottom half of the table but were also costly in terms of personnel. Osman, Phil Jagielka, and Jack Rodwell were all forced off with injury in the first game, while Sylvain Distin tweaked his hamstring at White Hart Lane.
Distin is almost certainly ruled out which means that Shane Duffy, the Frenchman's more-than-capable replacement on Wednesday night, will get his first League start for Everton alongside John Heitinga. Ross Barkley, Tony Hibbert, Jack Rodwell and Seamus Coleman are also likely absentees, meaning Phil Neville will continue at right back and Landon Donovan will line up in midfield.
The question of whom to deploy in the centre alongside Marouane Fellaini, however, will likely be solved by the arrival of Darron Gibson from Manchester United. The Irish international was signed for an estimated fee of between £500,000 and £1M and will likely go straight into the team to face Villa.
On the left flank, it's got to be most Evertonians' fervent wish that Royston Drenthe be handed his first start of the year after eclipsing the efforts of the team's other forward players with his 22-minute cameo against Spurs the other night. The Dutchman possesses pace and drive like no one else in the Blues' squad but even though he has clearly been working on the defensive side of his game, Moyes seems reticent to play him over 90 minutes.
It's up front where the real problems lie, of course. If Gibson is handed his debut in midfield, Tim Cahill could be moved forward again but with Victor Anichebe having struggled through 68 minutes at Spurs looking uncomfortable and decidedly not up for it, Denis Stracqualursi failing to convince and Louis Saha's confidence at an all-time low, it's hard to see just who should get the nod.
If there's cause for optimism beyond the personnel concerns at Everton it's that Alex McLeish's Villa side are not enjoying a great season themselves. They've lost as many home games as Everton — five — and lie two places below the Blues in the table, albeit with just one point less from 20 games.
McLeish will probably give new loan acquisition, Robbie Keane, his first game after his arrival from LA Galaxy, but he is without Emile Heskey, Carlos Cuellar and Chris Herd.
With Villa having scored just two goals more this season than low-scoring Everton, this one doesn't promise much in the entertainment stakes and the onus will be on the defence to keep it tight and allow some rub of the green or a spark of inspiration at the other end to earn what would be a priceless away victory.
It would be Everton's second win in Birmingham so far this year but in order for it to happen, someone has to score. And therein has been the problem this season.
Another potential problem, of course, is Mark Clattenburg, the controversial referee who will be taking charge of his first match involving Everton since receiving a bollocking in the tunnel by David Moyes after the Merseyside derby of October 2007 that has gone down in Goodison folklore as the "Clattenburg derby".
As Martin Atkinson, his rival for the title of Worst Ref in the Premier League, showed when he turned down a stonewall penalty for the Blues at White Hart Lane, there's no real cause for optimism that Clattenburg can atone in any way for his previous errors.
|Premier League Scores|
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|2011-12 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
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|4 the Game||Report|
|ASTON VILLA (4-4-2)|
|Warnock (81' Keane)|
|Subs not used|
|Gibson (84' Bilyaletdinov)|
|Drenthe (60' Anichebe)|
|Saha (88' Stracqualursi)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|15||West Bromwich Albion||22|
|18||Queens Park Rangers||17|