Without a Premier League win on home turf for six weeks, Everton produced a superb defensive performance that shut down title-chasing Manchester City's prolific goalscoring machine and enabled Darron Gibson's second-half goal to deservedly earn the spoils on a frigid night on Merseyside.
Against the backdrop of frenetic transfer deadline day activity that ultimately saw Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar arrive and Louis Saha make a surprise move to Tottenham, the Blues' harried, pressured and frustrated a City side who had strolled to victory in the reverse fixture back in September. This was an entirely different display by David Moyes's side; where they had been timid and ultra-defensive at the Etihad Stadium, tonight, with a raucous Goodison crowd behind them, Everton tried to take the game to their opponents and were formidable at the back.
Indeed, though City teased and probed and Everton struggled for long periods to keep the ball, Tim Howard was forced to make just one save of note in 90 minutes, that a save with his feet to block Micah Richards' shot from the angle after six minutes.
Moyes had taken the somewhat controversial decision to replace Shane Duffy with Tony Hibbert in central defence but a determined shift by the right back alongside an immense performance by John Heitinga was at the core of the stubborn rearguard action that underpinned this magnificent result.
Starting in typical fashion on the front foot, the Blues looked to have taken the lead as early as the fifth minute when Denis Stracqualursi, starting his second consecutive game, headed a corner back across Joe Hart but Joleon Lescott headed the ball off the goalline to deny the big Argentine.
But City quickly settled and began dictating the pattern of the game as, to a man, the Everton midfield routinely gave the ball away with poor passing or by taking too long to pick a pass. A case in point was Royston Drenthe's awful quick free kick that he gave straight to Lescott who launched a ball forward to Sergio Aguero. The Argentine forward controlled the pass superbly but was quickly closed down by three blue shirts and he eventually screwed a shot wide.
The Blues struggled on the whole to find any consistent forward momentum in the first half. All too often they relied on the long ball from the back or the ball would end up with Phil Neville to chip aimlessly down the right touchline where Landon Donovan was owned in the air by his marker. And when they did try to match City's patient build-up play with some measured passing, they were harried into mistakes by the impatience of the Goodison crowd.
Nevertheless, they remained a threat from set-pieces and Marouane Fellaini came agonisingly close when a corner came back out to Donovan and when he laid it back to Leighton Baines, Fellaini snatched at the resulting cross and belted it the wrong side of the upright.
A minute later, Roberto Mancini's side came as close to scoring as they would all evening when Samir Nasri unloaded from 30 yards and his shot crashed off the underside of the crossbar. Howard saved superbly from Aguero on the rebound but the striker was flagged offside anyway.
A first half that was interrupted for four minutes when a fan staged a bizarre protest at RyanAir by handcuffing himself to the post next to Joe Hart, eventually came to a goalless conclusion with Moyes no doubt content at his team's dogged defensive work in the first 45 minutes.
The visitors started the second half the more likely side to score, with Aguero all too easily shrugging off the attentions of Hibbert near the halfway line and eventually surging forward to cut the ball back to Nasri. Thankfully, the French midfielder's drive deflected off Heitinga and behind for a corner.
Then, with the lively Aguero again causing problems in the Blues' defence, Fellaini, whose determined midfeld work had him straddling the line between legal and illegal all evening, had Evertonian hearts in their mouths when he slid in on the Argentine in the area but he executed his tackle superbly to win the ball.
And it was the Belgian's physical presence that set up the attack that led to the Everton goal, one where everything clicked for two players who could hardly do anything right with the ball up to that point. Drenthe collected itl off Fellaini in the centre circle and, with one masterful feint, left Gareth Barry for dead, surged forward before laying it off to Baines wide on the left.
Barry got a head to the defender's cross but it dropped to Donovan who controlled the bounce, laid it back to Gibson and he hammered the ball home via a slight deflection off Barry's leg. Cue a pile of celebrating bodies in front of an electrified Gwladys Street end.
Everton had the bit between their teeth now and after Nasri bobbled the ball into the roof of the net from byline, terrific work by the ever-industrious Stracqualursi saw him deliver a cross from the left from which Gibson bounced a left-footed volley just wide.
Given the stakes for Mancini's men and their attacking talent, it was no surprise that the last quarter of an hour was all about Everton defending deep and keeping things tight while City tried to find a way through the wall of blue shirts. The sizeable away contingent bayed as one for a penalty in the 76th minute when Kolarov's cross from the left was stopped by the unwitting Neville's arm while Drenthe was booked for leaving a high foot in on Richards, which was Moyes's cue to replace him with Jose Baxter.
The Blues held firm though under the visitiors' pressure and apart from a goalmouth panic in the final minute that was alleviated by substitute Apostolos Vellios hacking the ball clear to safety, the makeshift defence never really looked in danger of giving up the precious points. The final whistle was greeted as expected with a huge roar of relief and delight from a Goodison crowd that has had precious little to celebrate this season.
Using the platform provided by the FA Cup win over Fulham last Friday and the display that underpinned it, Everton recaptured some of the fighting spirit that has been a hallmark of Moyes's tenure but which has been lacking for so much the campaign. Granted, from an attacking point of view, the Blues were again disappointing overall; too many players gave the ball away with sloppy passes and they didn't create enough chances, but that was to be expected given their form over recent weeks and the calibre of the opposition.
What was important, in the context of the new signings and growing confidence, was that they shut out a free-scoring team and gave themselves a massive lift by securing victory over the Premier League leaders. With Pienaar returning, a player who can hold into the ball and bring other players into the game, Everton will be better equipped to play more enterprising football and provide the service from which Jelavic can prove he can cut it in the world's toughest league.
Player Ratings: Howard 6, Neville 6, Hibbert 7, Heitinga 8*, Baines 6, Gibson 6, Fellaini 8, Donovan 7, Drenthe 5 (Baxter 5), Cahill 7, Stracqualursi 8 (Vellios -)
A mixed January comes to an end this evening with the biggest test of the month posed by by title-chasing Manchester City. Lifted as they were by the fightback to beat Fulham in the FA Cup last Friday that booked the Blues' place in the Fifth Round, Everton will have plenty to prove, not least because of their meek performance at the Etihad Stadium earlier in the season.
As is the case this time, much of the pre-match talk ahead of that game back in September surrounded the Blues' impressive run of results against City, but Roberto Mancini's men broke a four-match losing streak with a routine 2-0 victory over an Everton side that didn't manage a shot on target all game.
Starting the game in 14th place and, hopefully, with a couple of new signings sewn up, David Moyes's side will need a more positive and attacking outlook against the Premier League leaders. With Nikica Jelavic and Manolas Kostas on the verge of signing, an expectant Goodison will be hoping for some more reasons to get the noise level up for another night game.
That's where Moyes's team selection and the attitude of the players will come into play. The win over Fulham by no means scaled the heights of some of the Blues' best moments over the past few seasons, but it was measurably better than anything else Goodison has seen in recent weeks, certainly since the turn of the year.
Injury concerns will, again, keep the manager's options fairly limited beyond the starting line-up that began against the Cottagers. Seamus Coleman, Jack Rodwell and Sylvain Distin are all expected to remain on the sidelines with Leon Osman and Phil Jagielka.
Tony Hibbert was fit enough to be named on the bench last Friday but Phil Neville, as captain, will likely keep his place at right back. Alongside John Heitinga in central defence, Shane Duffy will undergo the sternest test in his fledgeling career but performances to date suggest he should be fine, even against the likes of Sergio Aguero and David Silva.
With the exception of the left flank wildcard — any one of Royston Drenthe, Magaye Gueuye or Victor Anichebe could get the nod there — midfield picks itself from right to left, with Landon Donovan, Darron Gibson and Marouane Fellaini, while up front it would not be surprising to see Tim Cahill and Denis Stracqualursi leading the line again together after the Argentine's industrious, goalscoring exploits against Fulham.
As far as City goes, what more can be said beyond what any Evertonian is surely already thinking? They've only lost twice on their travels so far this season and have scored more goals away from home in 11 matches than the Blues have in all of their 22 so far combined. They pose an awesome opposition but if Everton can recapture some of that never-say-die spirit and serve up some chances for the forward line, then anything is possible with the 12th man of Goodison behind them.
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|MAN CITY (4-4-2)|
|Lescott (Kolarov 68')|
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|15||West Bromwich Albion||26|
|16||Queens Park Rangers||21|