Everton extended their unbeaten run to seven Premier League games but they'll be disappointed not to have beaten a limited Stoke City side and cemented seventh place after taking a lead, albeit a fortuitously earned one, into half-time.
The Blues were largely in control for the first hour and had certainly played the better, more patient football but, after scoring a hatful of goals in recent games, their inability to find the killer final ball — an affliction that plagued their performances earlier in the season — combined with growing fatigue meant that they couldn't kill their hosts off after Peter Crouch's unwitting own goal had handed them the lead just before the break.
Playing Tim Cahill in a withdrawn midfield role and pushing Steven Pienaar into "the hole" after Victor Anichebe had hobbled off injured after just 22 minutes, David Moyes employed a different system as he sought to try and exploit a perceived lack of mobility among the central defenders strung out across Stoke's back line.
The South African just couldn't consistently find his rhythm, though, and he, along with Leon Osman and Anichebe's replacement, Magaye Gueye, struggled to compete physically against the likes of Robert Huth. That left goal machine, Nikica Jelavic, starved of service and largely left to feed off scraps again and it was perhaps typical of his evening that his best effort on goal came unintentionally off his knee and flew narrowly over the crossbar in the 35th minute.
By that stage, Everton might, with a more critical eye from referee Anthony Taylor, been a goal to the good but when Anichebe went down in the area under a clumsy challenge from Shawcross, the official waved play on. A couple of dangerous balls across the home defence just eluded Jelavic and Osman had back-to-back shots that might have been more dangerous had he found more power but Asimir Begovic was able to save both times.
And after Gueye's best moment of his 56 minutes on the pitch — the French forward would later be substituted himself in favour of Stracqualursi — had provided Jelavic's close call, Pienaar smashed an effort that Begovic helped over with his fingertips and Gueye drove wide from the resulting corner.
Stoke, for their part, had almost completely failed to trouble Everton from open play. Save for Matthew Etherington scooping over from 18 yards as he tried to loop the ball over Tim Howard, their offensive threat had come almost exclusively from set-pieces and mostly from Rory Delap's missiles from the touchline.
Each one in the first half seemed to cause some level of consternation in the Blues' defence but they survived and took the lead from a set-piece of their own at the end of the half. Jelavic was finally awarded a free kick after being buffeted by Stoke's defence for 44 minutes and when Pienaar slid the ball out wide to Hibbert instead of putting it straight into the box, the veteran full back had time to put in a cross that ended up bouncing off Crouch and past his hapless 'keeper.
Stoke were less inclined to allow the visitors the same time in possession as they had allowed in the first and Tony Pulis' men finally created another chance from open play 10 minutes after the interval. Phil Jagielka did well to acrobatically head behind to deny Walters' attempt to cross after he had skinned Tony Hibbert near the byline.
Back down the other end, a really promising opening arrived for Everton when Osman and Pienaar combined down the right flank but when the former collected the former's centre with Fellaini better placed, Osman skied a first-time shot disappointingly into the stand behind the goal.
Everton spent much of the second half content to put their foot on the ball and wait for openings to appear but they failed to heed the warning given to them in the 59th minute when Stoke countered when Gueye lost the ball following a throw-in deep in enemy territory and Jagielka's challenge on Kenwyne Jones had the home crowd bellowing for a penalty they wouldn't get.
And nine minutes later, after Pulis had made a triple substitution that included the introduction of Ricardo Fuller and Cameron Jerome, one poor final ball too many from Everton was punished by a quick Stoke counter-attack. Jerome was sent away in a one-versus-two race with Jagielka and John Heitinga and with neither defender electing to put a foot in as he made a bee-line for Howard's goal, the ex-Birmingham striker capitalised on a fortunate bounce in his favour and drilled a shot that deflected off Jagielka's leg and over Howard's lunge to level the scores.
Both sides looked as though they were game for taking the three points and, despite looking increasingly jaded, Everton still looked the more like to carve out the winning chance. But another tame effort by Osman was comfortably gathered by Begovic and Jelavic couldn't get enough purchase on another difficult chance from Distin's late cross so steered wide.
All in all, with Liverpool losing at home again (this time to the Fulham side that Everton had blitzed 4-0 just three days ago) this was a decent point in what is always a tricky fixture. With a bit more guile and better end product in the final third the Blues probably would have easily taken the points but things just didn't seem to be clicking in the same way they were at the weekend.
So, two games left and, with a superior goal difference to Liverpool and Fulham, Everton probably need just one win from the trip to Wolves or the home game with Newcastle to secure seventh place.
Player Ratings: Howard 6, Hibbert 7, Jagielka 7, Heitinga 7, Distin 7, Cahill 6, Osman 6 (McFadden -), Fellaini 6, Anichebe 6 (Gueye 5 (Stracqualursi 5)), Pienaar 7*, Jelavic 6
Everton's intent to finish a season that started so poorly on a high has been backed up by a glut of goals and some fine performances, leaving David Moyes's side on course for a seventh-placed finish.
The team that could barely score earlier this season has now scored twelve in their last three Premier League matches, thanks to some wonderfully enterprising football, the rejuvenated Steven Pienaar and, of course, the goals of one Nikica Jelavic who has reached double figures for the Blues in just 951 minutes of play — that's faster than any striker in Everton history.
Quite the change from when the Blues last met Stoke City back in early December. A demoralising defeat that day started a run of 10 matches in which they scored just seven times and had, by the time they'd been held by Blackburn Rovers in mid-January, slumped to 14th place in the table.
Much has changed since then, not least the triple introduction of Jelavic, Pienaar and Darron Gibson, the last of whom has brought a quite assurance to the Blues' centre and given Marouane Fellaini license to boss the midfield when the two have been paired together. Everton are now looking to make it seven League games without defeat since Arsenal escaped from Goodison with a highly fortunate victory seven weeks ago, an unbeaten sequence that has yielded 18 goals, six of them for the new Croatian toast of Goodison.
Moyes will have similar selection options for this trip to the Britannia Staidum against 14th placed Stoke. Jack Rodwell and Leighton Baines remain on the injured list with hamstring strains and Royston Drenthe is quickly becoming a forgotten man after his disciplinary transgressions effectively ended his Everton career prematurely.
The manager may elect to use some of this younger, budding players as substitutes but given the tricky nature of playing Stoke on their own patch, with their aerial bombardments from long throws and emphasis on finding the head of the giraffine Peter Crouch from the wings, Moyes probably won't be too risky with his selection.
With Liverpool playing at home to Fulham, the side the Blues despatched so easily by four goals to nil on Saturday, Everton really need a victory to ensure that they preserve that two-point lead over the neighbours heading into final two games of the campaign. The way they've been playing, you wouldn't bet against them.
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|2011-12 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
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|4 the Game||Report|
|STOKE CITY (4-4-2)|
|Delap (67' Whelan)|
|Walters (67' Fuller)|
|Crouch (67' Jerome)|
|Subs not used|
|Osman (89' McFadden)|
|Anichebe (22' Gueye (78' Stracqualursi))|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Liverpool||0 - 1||Fulham|
|Stoke||1 - 1||Everton|
|Bolton||1 - 4||Tottenham|
|Chelsea||0 - 2||Newcastle|
|10||West Bromwich Albion||46|
|17||Queens Park Rangers||34|