Everton are off the mark at Goodison Park with their first home win of the season but it took the intervention of all three second-half substitutes and some clinical finishing to get them over the line just when it looked like the Goodison faithful were going to go home frustrated for the second week running.
Having dominated the opening half hour but failed to make their superiority tell, it was with an air of annoying inevitability that Wigan Athletic, a team who hadn't scored on their travels so far before today, took the lead on the half hour. And although the Blues hit back almost immediately and were level again inside two minutes, they were found wanting for long periods for the next 50-odd minutes in their quest to kill off their near neighbours and grab three elusive points in front of their home fans.
Enter three players who represent life after Arteta, Beckford and Yakubu, as the buds of promise that Apostolos Vellios and Royston Drenthe showed in their cameos against Aston Villa last weekend blossomed into two late goals, with Denis Stracqualursi also playing his part with the flick-on that set the Dutchman away for the third goal, his first in the Royal Blue jersey.
Contrary to expectation, David Moyes named an unchanged lineup from the side that started the Villa game but, just as they did seven days ago, Everton started brightly and purposefully, Seamus Coleman forcing the first save of the game from Ali Al-Habsi after five minutes with a downward header that the goalkeeper pushed behind.
10 minutes later, a beautiful reverse pass by Leon Osman released Leighton Baines and his low cross found Tim Cahill who was able to engineer a left-footed effort but it was blocked. Later, Osman's chipped ball to the far side of the penalty area found Coleman who drilled the ball across the area to Marouane Fellaini but Gary Caldwell was on hand to block his side-foot shot in front of goal.
Those two chances aside, the Blues were guilty of over-elaborance at times — all too often the wrong decision was taken with the final pass and a Wigan defence that was just begging to be breached with its sloppy distribution and the space they afforded their hosts remained intact.
Apart from a 10th-minute chance for Franco Di Santo following an awful slip by Fellaini that the young striker blasted high and wide, Robert Martinez' Wigan were barely in the match as an attacking entity but they found themselves in the Everton box with Victor Moses about to pull the trigger on a shot from the angle but Tony HIbbert slid in with the first of a number of crucial interventions he'd make to concede the corner. The resulting kick was played short to Di Santo and he easily shrugged off Osman, the Everton midfielder giving up on the challenge with vain appeals for a foul. That gave Di Santo the space he needed to drive a shot off Hibbert's out-stretched leg and into the far corner of the Blues' net.
As if to prove that they could find their way through the visitors if they could just get their act together, though, Everton were level less than two minutes later. Bilyaletdinov's hammered cross-cum-shot was headed behind by Caldwell and from the resulting corner Baines found Cahill who leaped in typically impressive fashion but saw his header cannon back off the crossbar. Thankfully, the ball dropped invitingly in front of Jagielka and he stooped to head home the equaliser.
Parity restored and a breakthrough made, the stage was set for Everton to finally take the game by the scruff of the neck but they struggled to create much more meaningful before the break. A Baines free kick that he clipped wide from right on the edge of the box and a Cahill header that flew wide at the back post were as close as they came to making another dent in the scoreline.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the second half was an increasingly less promising affair than the first 45 minutes had been, with the team seeming to lose its way as the game progressed. It was clear just minutes after the resumption after half time that the Blues were crying out for a genuine striker... and the fact that both Yakubu and Mikel Arteta had found the net in the lunchtime kick-off between Blackburn and Arsenal probably didn't help the Evertonian mood as they pondered their team's lack of goals from open play this season.
Cahill had put in a decent shift leading the line in terms of running and effort but he looked a little off his game in terms of his distribution of the ball and there was a general lack of movement up front.
Bilyaletdinov had had one of his most consistent displays in a long while but, like Osman, Jack Rodwell and Coleman, he was often guilty of holding onto the ball too long or picking the wrong pass and the Russian was withdrawn after 58 minutes in favour of Drenthe.
If the Dutch winger hoped to make an impact on proceedings, though, he would initially be disappointed. Indeed, it would be a full 10 minutes after his first couple of touches before he'd see the ball again. In between, Fellaini was booked for persistent fouling and Hugo Rodallega ballooned the resulting free kick over, Baines swung a direct effort of his own a yard or so over from the edge of the "D", and Coleman made way for Apostolos Vellios.
The 19 year-old Greek had been on the pitch just two minutes when his first chance to change the game arrived but in his eagerness he either didn't see Osman wide open to his right or elected to ignore him and went for goal instead from 25 yards with a daisy-cutter that Al-Habsi had no problems gathering.
At the other end, Wigan were threatening with the odd corner off the back of some superb interventions by Jagielka and Hibbert while Van Arnhoult fired narrowly over after stepping neatly inside two Blue shirts but the onus remained on Everton to take the game to the visitors, a task that became all the more difficult the more Martinez instructed his men to sit deep and soak up the pressure.
The frustration that was building in Everton's midfield as they failed to make inroads was finally released, though, with six minutes left of the regulation 90. Vellios neatly chested down a ball forward and held off two markers before laying the ball wide for Hibbert and when the right back delivered a peach of a cross from the right flank, the Greek rose majestically to power a header beyond Al-Habsi and break the deadlock before being mobbed by teammates celebrating his first goal in English football.
The delight was very nearly short-lived, though, as almost straight from the kick-off, the ball was lofted towards the Everton box, Rodallega headed it back and David Jones, a substitute for Jordi Gomes, took once touch before lofting a shot over the reaching Tim Howard. For a horrible moment the ball looked like it was going to drop under the bar but it bounced off the "woodwork" instead, fell back to Jones and a combination of Sylvain Distin and Hibbert was enough to edge the ball away from him. Moses latched onto the loose ball at the corner of the six-yard box but Hibbert made one last lunge and helped deflect the shot wide of the post.
Everton survived and would seal the points in injury time thanks to the confidence and cool finishing of Drenthe. The Blues' new number 10 had given Osman the opportunity to score four minutes from the end but, not for the first time in the game, he ran himself into a cul-de-sac and the break-away was wasted.
But when Stracqualursi, who had made an impressive first appearance that bodes well for his future at Goodison, flicked on a long goal kick by Howard some seven minutes into injury time, Drenthe anticipated the possibilities superbly, accelerated onto the ball and swept a left-footed shot past the stranded 'keeper with aplomb to wrap up three much-needed points.
So, three goals and another post-match inquisition into the Blues' attacking frailties averted as the Blues prepare for a Carling Cup date with West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday and, beyond that, a potentially season-defining run of games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
After the horrendous result against QPR, the lucky escape with a win from Ewood Park and the sense of loss brought on by the departures on transfer deadline day, there are genuine grounds for hope now. While there isn't a natural like-for-like replacement for Arteta, the addition of Drenthe, with his self-belief and — even more important — his pace, looks to have added a badly-missed dimension on the left flank. Up front, in just two substitute's appearances, Vellios has demonstrated that he is a more complete striker than Beckford and one much more suited to the way Everton play.
Very early days for Stracqualursi, too, but if the absence of Louis Saha can be relegated to a mere after-thought, you know that things are starting to look up in the striking department. Of course, the real tests for the new boys are just around the corner but, for now, let's welcome a mental hurdle cleared and take one game at a time.
Player Ratings: Howard 6, Hibbert 8*, Jagielka 8, Distin 7, Baines 7, Rodwell 6, Coleman 5 (Vellios 7), Fellaini
76, Bilyaletdinov 7 (Drenthe 7), Osman 6, Cahill 7 (Stracqualursi 7)
Having been frustrated by Aston Villa last Saurday, Everton's quest for a first home win of the campaign shifts to this weekend's visit of Wigan Athletic, the team which, after four games (one more than the Blues, of course) sit one place higher in the Premier Table in ninth.
David Moyes will have been pleased by the shift his side put in against Villa but he hinted in his pre-match press conference that he won't be averse to making changes this weekend, and with the exception of Victor Anichebe, he'll have a fully-fit squad from which to choose.
High on the list of anticipated changes is Royston Drenthe who made a promising 20-minute cameo a week ago and followed that up with a goalscoring debut for the Reserves. Closer to match fitness and a little more settled in his new surroundings, the Dutch winger is expected to make his first start for the first team against Wigan.
Denis Stracqualursi, the other deadline-day loan acquisition, also figured in the Reserves win on Tuesday but, by most accounts, he looked short of sharpness and he will likely have to be patient for his opportunity.
Indeed, if there is to be a change up front to the Tim Cahill, lone striker, strategy then Apostolos Vellios would be the more likely candidate to make his first Premier League start if it weren't for the return to fitness of Louis Saha. The young Greek made a big impression in the few minutes he was on last week, twice coming close to scoring the winner.
Moyes's decision to throw him on as the last striking substitute rather than Stracqualursi was an interesting one but it suggests that the manager has seen enough in training from Vellios that he feels he could be ready to make the step up. Certainly, with Anichebe on the treatment table, the opportunity is there for the taking but much will depend on whether Saha is deemed ready to play from the start and how the Frenchman performs.
Wigan haven't beaten the Blues since 2005 and they have yet to score away from home so far this season so there's a fair degree of optimism among Evertonians coming into this one. But there are no easy games in the top flight anymore and Everton will have to be more clinical in front of goal than they were last week if they're to get the job done and push further into the top half of the table with three points.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2011-12 Reports Index|
|Coleman (66' Vellios :88')|
|Bilyaletdinov (58' Drenthe)|
|Cahill (83' Stracqualursi)|
|Subs not used|
|WIGAN ATH. (4-4-2)|
|Gomez (71' Jones)|
|Rodallega (90+2' Maloney)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|9||Queens Park Rangers||7|
|20||West Bromwich Albion||3|