Everton recovered from conceding a calamitous goal to grab a point at Wigan but left their sizeable traveling contingent with the feeling that this was an opportunity missed against the Premier League's bottom club.
Victor Anichebe came off the bench to score another crucial goal but there was more embarassment for Tim Howard at the other end as a deflection off Phil Neville spun off a divot and through his hands to give the home side as lead they never looked like earning on their own.
Ironically, it was the Latics' goal that sparked the urgency from the Blues that they had otherwised lacked to drive home their superiority in a dour second half played in the cold rain at the DW Stadium.
David Moyes opted for one of his two new signings from the start, deploying Steven Pienaar from the start on the left flank and leaving Nikica Jelavic on the substitutes' bench, but it was the manager's decision to bring Phil Neville on and not the Croatian striker for the injured Tim Cahill at half time that will have raised eyebrows.
Indeed, despite the South African slotting into back left midfield like he'd never left and providing the lively link-up play that was at the heart of Everton's best moments early, the Blues just looked ponderous and tame up front for much of this sleet-driven encounter.
Denis Stracqualursi was rewarded for two impressive displays by keeping his place up front and his workrate was undiminished but he and Cahill made for a fairly leaden-footed partnership, with Everton attacks again breaking down when things got tight in the final third.
The Argentine did force the first save of the game, though, with a toe-poked affort that Ali Al-Habsi gathered comfortably after 12 minutes, that came at a time when the Blues were stroking the ball around really nicely at times. But for all their patience and probing going forward, Everton created few chances and their momentum stalled, as usual, around the 20 mimute mark.
However, while Jean Beausejour was providing regular service into the Blues' area from the Wigan left, the central defensive partnership of John Heitinga and the returning Sylvain Distin were mopping things up fairly comfortably even if the Frenchman looked a little rusty in the first half.
Chances were at a premium and after Heitinga had hooked a soft shot into the 'keeper's arms and brilliant defending by Tony Hibbert had denied Franco di Santo, Darron Gibson side-footed the best chance of the first 45 miuntes disappointingly over the bar. Leighton Baines had robbed Emerson Boyce superbly on the left and cut the ball back invitingly from the byline but Gibson was unable to repeat his heroics from Tuesday evening.
Moyes's mystifying decision to put Neville on at the break and move Marouane Fellaini forward alongside the isolated Stracqualursi did not help matters and the lack of a striker with a natural touch in the box was evidenced eight minutes into the second half when the Argentine delivered a great cross to the Belgian but Fellaini's first touch was poor and the chance was lost.
Jelavic finally got his chance with an hour gone, though, when he replaced Stracqualursi, but the fact that he barely touched the ball in half an hour on the pitch and Landon Donovan was simillarly anonymous was perhaps illustrative of how Everton's early cohesion had evaporated.
Indeed, with neither side showing much ability to win it, the game appeared to be drifting towards a goalless conclusion when disaster struck in the Everton defence with 15 minutes to go. Neville stuck out a leg to block a Beausejour cross from the left and the ball spun off the uneven turf, wrong-footing Howard and the American just flapped at air as the ball dropped into the net.
Everton responded — as they had to — though, and when Baines' 82nd-minute corner came back to him and he whipped a left-footer in at the second attempt, substitute Victor Anichebe rose to glance a perfect header into the far corner to bring the Blues level again.
Unfortunately, though, Moyes's side were not able to seize the initiative to steal a late win. Jelavic won a late free kick when he was wrestled to the ground by Maynor Figueroa but Baines swept the resulting free kick over the bar.
Overall, a highly disappointing performance after the fireworks against City on Tuesday evening and in the final reckoning it's going to be in results like these where the chance for European qualification was lost. The first quarter of proceedings aside, urgency was missing and the introduction of Neville for Cahill combined with the decision not to introduce Royston Drenthe at some point was a misstep that perhaps assumed that the Blues would be able to force a goal from somewhere against a poor Wigan team.
With just 15 games of another lost season remaining, you'd think that the manager would have gone a bit more gung-ho once it had become clear that Wigan were there for the taking if Everton could just create some clear-cut chances. Ultimately, it's this conservatism and lack of dynamism in Moyes's approach that will keep the critics on his back.
Player Ratings: Howard 5, Hibbert 7 (Anichebe 7'), Heitinga 7, Distin 6, Baines 7, Gibson 5, Fellaini 6, Donovan 6, Pienaar 7*, Cahill 5 (Neville 5) Stracqualursi 6 (Jelavic 6),
Unbeaten in four games now in all competitions, into the last 16 of the FA Cup and with two new faces arriving on transfer deadline day, it's fair to say that optimism is back in the air at Everton. The frustration of the home draw with Blackburn just two weeks ago was quickly banished by a come-from-behind cup win over Aston Villa and the hard-fought and well-deserved defeat of the leaders in front of a rocking Goodison Park crowd on Tuesday night.
Next, a trip down the road to Wigan, and an opportunity to press home that new-found confidence against the Premier League's bottom club who are now without a win since the 10th of December. It's a run of results that has left Roberto Martinez's side five points adrift of safety and, in all likelihood, dangerously low on morale.
Though he probably won't admit it publicly yet, David Moyes will be looking up now rather than down thanks to the stirring win in midweek and a remarkably successful January transfer window, one in which he managed to fill two holes in midfield, offload a striker struggling through an uncharacteristically barren spell, and sign another with goalscoring pedigree, albeit untested at the top level.
The Blues sit in 10th place and as many points behind Newcastle United in fifth place with 15 games to play and with things being so unpredictable in the upper echelons of the division this season, Moyes will know that if his side can put a run of victories together, they could be right in the thick of European contention come May.
One step at a time, though. His first task will be to bed Nikica Jelavic into his new surroundings and reconcile his new signing with the form of Denis Stracqualursi. The big Argentine scored his first Everton goal against Fulham and made an absolute nuisance of himself against City, earning a standing ovation and the growing admiration and affection of the Blue faithful.
It would be difficult to drop "El Traca" after playing so well the past week and it wouldn't be surprising at all if Jelavic started on the bench but the way Tim Cahill hobbled through the pain barrier in the waning minutes on Tuesday suggested that Moyes may have to field both strikers at the DW Stadium this weekend.
His other conundrum will concern central defence where he will have to decide whether to continue with Tony Hibbert alongside John Heitinga or to bring Shane Duffy back into the starting XI. Ultimately, Hibbert proved ideal for the kind of harrying and last-ditch defending required against Manchester City but his lack of height alone means he can't be regarded as a solution there. Besides, Duffy's form was almost exemplorary and he was unfortunate to lose his place.
In midfield, of course, the manager has to decide whether to pitch Steven Pienaar straight into the action — coincidentally against the same opposition he faced as an un-used sub for Spurs on Tuesday — or to continue with Royston Drenthe on the left. Given Moyes's reticence to use the Dutchman from the start in recent weeks, Pienaar could well get the chance to reunite with Leighton Baines down the Everton left at the earliest opportunity.
In many ways this is an important fixture for Moyes's boys on a ground where the Blues have lost just once since the Latics were promoted seven seasons ago. The newly improved mood among the players and fans is such that even a draw would be seen as a missed opportunity but avoiding defeat — that would seriously knock the confidence — is the first priority. Another victory ahead of the visit of Chelsea to Goodison next week would be fantastic.
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|Stam (Jones 65')|
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|Di Santo (Crusat 68')|
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|15||West Bromwich Albion||26|
|16||Queens Park Rangers||21|