Everton notched a third straight League win for the first time this season to keep pace in the chase for Europe thanks to an electric moment from Kevin Mirallas shortly before the half-hour mark at Goodison Park. The Belgian's superb individual goal proved to be enough against a typically resilient but relatively toothless Stoke outfit who lost on the road for the sixth game on the bounce.
Though this was a markedly less tempestuous affair than the reverse fixture at the Britannia Stadium in December, it was a grind at times for an Everton side that lacked the intensity and the cohesiveness that they'd displayed against Manchester City a fortnight ago. Exhibiting a rare three-man back line boasting Sylvain Distin, John Heitinga and the returning Phil Jagielka, the Blues started slowly and had spells of decent play but despite registering twice the number of shots as their one-dimensional opponents, they couldn't find the second goal that would have made the closing stages more comfortable.
Thankfully, Mirallas pounced just as David Moyes's side were emerging from their shells but they could easily have been a goal down inside three minutes. A trademark long throw from the right flank, from Ryan Shotton these days and not Rory Delap, was nodded goalwards by Robert Huth but though Tim Howard's one-handed save fell straight to Jonathan Walters, the Irish forward could only turn the ball onto the crossbar from close range.
Though Moyes had fielded two strikers in the form of Nikica Jelavic and Victor Anichebe in Mariouane Fellaini's absense and the three central defenders effectively gave Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman license to push forward down the flanks, Everton were perplexingly inoffensive for the opening 20 minutes and some sloppy distribution threatened to be their undoing.
Things started to click a little more halfway through the first period, though, particularly when Baines sparked to life and it was his cut-back that served up a headed opportunity for Jelavic in the 23rd minute but the Croatian could only direct his effort into Asimir Begovic's arms.
Two futher deliveries by Baines into the danger zone just eluded Jelavic before Coleman bamboozled his way past Walters and into the area but he ballooned a left-foot shot into the Park End on his weaker left foot.
Stoke's modus operandi for almost all of the game was to pump the ball towards the Everton box and with the height they boast throughout the side, particularly with Peter Crouch on the field, it was a tactic that threatened to pay dividends at any time. Potential danger in the home team's box turned to the winning goal after 27 minutes, though, when Howard, returning after two games out with a back injury, fisted clear Kirk Cameron's cross from the left.
The ball fell to Mirallas and, after Stephen N'Zonzi had failed to check his progress, the Belgian raced forward with single-minded intent towards the visitors' area. A decisive change in direction took him past the last man in the form of the retreating Cameron and he tucked the ball home off Begovic's arm.
It was the kind of goal that is so rarely seen at Goodison given the lack of genuine pace in Moyes's squad but it highlighted just how potent a weapon Mirallas can be on the counter-attack when given the chance.
The Blues maintained some momentum for the remainder of the half and Mirallas flashed a right-footed shot across the face of Begovic's goal shot and inches past the far post, Heitinga raked a long-range effort over, Jelavic saw a fairly tame free kick gathered by the 'keeper and Mirallas fired a deflected shot behind after a neat one-two with Anichebe.
At the other end, Shawcross had the ball in the net but was rightly penalised for offside and Howard was equal to Walters' speculative shot from distance, parrying the ball away to safety five minutes before the interval.
The second half began as stodgily as had the first from Everton's perspective and as things began to get a little more testy and niggly, it seemed to be playing into Stoke's hands. The second of back-to-back corners 10 minutes after half-time was scooped away from the six-yard box but Anichebe was adjudged to have fouled Shotton outside his own area. The resulting free kick found Huth at the back post but, thankfully, he headed wide.
Howard's goal escaped an even closer call six minutes later when another inswinging cross was fired into the danger zone and Shotton headed narrowly over at the far post with the American goalkeeper stranded.
Though Anichebe was holding the ball up well and taking no nonsense from Stoke's physical defence and Mirallas began to re-emerge as a threat in the game around the hour mark and saw a half-volley deflect behind off Shawcross, Everton generally lacked fluidity. In a more withdrawn role, Leon Osman was subdued and failed to dictate the game in a way that he sometimes has this season. Darron Gibson was mostly steady but suffered from lapses in concentration that gifted possession to the opposition, and though Jelavic's workrate was typically first-rate, he was pretty dreadful with the ball at his feet.
One giveaway too many in an advanced position by the Croatian prompted Moyes to get Ross Barkley stripped off and ready to come on after 65 minutes but a decent far-post header off a Gibson cross that Begovic saved bought Jelavic a stay of execution. He was markedly improved from that point on and after Baines had smashed a free kick into the defensive wall, the striker whipped a direct kick from almost the same position inches wide.
Barkley made his entrance with 10 minutes to go but it was Mirallas who made way, ominously clutching his upper leg and hobbling off the bench. The young midfielder initially brought a bit more composure to the midfield but the Blues eventually settled into a more defensive posture in the final few minutes and Stoke launched aerial bombs forward hoping that something would break for them.
That it didn't owed much to determined Everton defending, led by Jagielka, as they battled constantly against Tony Pulis' array of height. Given the number of times Everton have thrown away points from winning positions this season, the slender nature of the 1-0 lead made for a nervy finale but only Jerome came close to breaking Goodison hearts when he swept the ball a foot over from the angle.
An attractive display of free-flowing football was never on the cards given the nature of the opposition and, by the same token, the three points are all that matters. The performance from Everton was a little flat but they got the job done and, thanks to Chelsea's defeat at Southampton, there are just four points separating fourth from sixth. With those crucial three games to come at White Hart Lane, the Emirates Stadium and Stamford Bridge, the Blues' European hopes really could lie in their own hands but they will need to step up their game starting next week if they are to achieve them. Cometh the hour, cometh the men?
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039 Posted 31/03/2013 at 07:59:18
Perhaps yesterday will prove to Moyes the value of a genuine counter attacking outlet. It will be interesting to see the team against Spurs... pretty sure it won't involve 3 at the back.
040 Posted 31/03/2013 at 08:23:51
What I was most happy with yesterday was the fact that the defence stood up well to Stoke and I don't think there were any huge mistakes from our defence. Jelavic also seemed to keep going and he got himself into scoring positions. Once he keeps doing the work he will score.
042 Posted 31/03/2013 at 08:45:32
I mean, what can he do in his defensive position as he seemed to just mark a man near the edge of the area for every corner yesterday so why not take that man to the half-way line and give us the option of not having to deal with the ball coming straight back after we clear a corner.
045 Posted 31/03/2013 at 09:06:08
049 Posted 31/03/2013 at 09:11:35
080 Posted 31/03/2013 at 12:53:09
085 Posted 31/03/2013 at 13:10:13
102 Posted 31/03/2013 at 14:47:46
149 Posted 31/03/2013 at 17:42:18
155 Posted 31/03/2013 at 18:33:56
He always enjoyed Derby games as did Bally...he was waspish a lot like Rush.
He was a natural goalscorer with bags of confidence and scored virtually every penalty he took.
Mirallas is faster though and I really hope he stays fit as he is a potential match winner.
Pity Jelavic is still struggling but all will be forgiven if he scores a couple against Spurs.
161 Posted 31/03/2013 at 18:51:41
VA and SC are a revelation this last few weeks and months, good for them. I trust that RB draws inspiration.
We miss my faves in MF and SP and there is constant talk that we will sell a big name player. Let's hope it is not our best Belgian, even best player, and lets hope that when he went off it was as a precaution rather than a bad injury.
178 Posted 31/03/2013 at 20:37:11
Took me a moment to realise LB, RB, VA, SC, MF and SP weren't positions
182 Posted 31/03/2013 at 21:17:48
204 Posted 31/03/2013 at 23:58:01
206 Posted 01/04/2013 at 00:21:22
208 Posted 01/04/2013 at 00:46:04
217 Posted 01/04/2013 at 03:27:49
250 Posted 01/04/2013 at 10:41:24
279 Posted 01/04/2013 at 14:02:44
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