When you have to score an extra goal each week just to overcome horrendous officiating and get the result you deserve, something is wrong with the game. Yet, that is where Everton find themselves this season, with the number of crucial decisions that have gone against them stacking up with every game they play.
Blatant penalties not given, legitimate goals ruled out and, as was the case today, phantom free kicks awarded to the opposition at important junctures in the proceedings... the refereeing injustice that David Moyes has had to swallow has run the gamut in the first 13 games of the campaign. And for the second time this season, Mike Jones was the incompetent in the middle to whom the manager's fury was directed, for all that ire will do him by that point, the slender victory that his side had almost eked out was gone with no recourse available.
Granted, the usual caveats for this season apply: Everton probably should have been a couple of goals to the good by that stage, particularly if they had carried their first-half momentum into the second. Unfortunately, as the conditions worsened, so did the performance of Moyes's patched-up outfit and while it looked as though they would grind out the kind of 1-0 victory that was the hallmark of the last time they finished fourth, they were punished for not killing the game off earlier.
Yet again the Blues trudged off the Goodison Park pitch with a familiar feeling of a draw feeling like a defeat. And the fact they hadn't scored the decisive second thanks in no small part to John Ruddy who made a couple of excellent saves should not take any of the harsh light of scrutiny off Mr Jones who was awful or the fact that the gameplan that had succeeded so well in the first half appeared to be abandoned in the second.
With Marouane Fellaini suspended, Tony Hibbert not deemed fit enough to start and all three of Phil Neville, Darron Gibson and Kevin Mirallas out injured, Moyes was forced to field a changed line-up featuring Phil Jagielka at right back and Bryan Oviedo on the left flank. Thomas Hitzlsperger made his full home debut in the centre alongside Leon Osman and Steven Naismith interchanged with Steven Pienaar in role behind Nikica Jelavic.
The changes didn't seem to visibly disrupt the Blues' flow in the early stages, though, and Everton looked tidy and enterprising going forward, with Oviedo in particular working nicely with Leighton Baines down the left flank. And it was the Costa Rican who created the goal for Naismith when he collected a sumptuous lofted pass from Hitzlsperger, chested it forward to evade his marker and then cut it back neatly to the Scot who side-footed into the roof of the net to make it 1-0 after 11 minutes.
In truth, the home side were less guilty of profligacy in front of goal and more for not creating enough clear-cut chances but Osman spurned the Blues' best chance to double their advantage just four minutes later. Superb work by Baines, where he collected a return pass via Pienaar and burst into the box ended with him shooting low across the goalkeeper but Ruddy saved smartly one-handed. The rebound fell invitingly to Osman but he snatched at the chance with goal gaping and he bounced a half-volley disappointingly into the ground and over the bar.
Norwich had been virtually insignificant as an attacking force for 25 minutes before Grant Holt barged his way through three defenders and sliced their first chance wide. And Sebastian Bassong missed badly with a free header off a corner in the closing stages of the half as the Canaries struggled to trouble the Everton goal.
In between, Jelavic and Naismith came within an inch of combining perfectly to finish a lovely move for the latter to double his tally but Ruddy pounced on the ball at the Scot's feet and gathered it at the second attempt, and Osman's impressive one-two exchange with Pienaar provided another good opportunity but the former's powder-puff shot was easily smothered by the 'keeper.
1-0 at half-time and everything was more or less going to plan. Pienaar had shrugged off an early knock to the knee sustained in a red-blooded challenge with Bassong but he continues to struggle to find his form. At the back, though, Jagielka was acquitting himself well as an emergency full back and the pairing of John Heitinga and Sylvain Distin looked solid.
The second half brought more frustration for the home faithful, though, as Everton's composure and cohesion fell away in the face of a noticeably more tenacious and physical approach from the visitors. Whereas it was Everton contesting every ball, harrying and closing down in the first period, Norwich started to compress the space and harass the man with the ball leading to a slew of mis-placed passes in the Blues' midfield after half time.
Holt, in particular, started putting himself about, toeing the line between legal and otherwise in the process, and he began to cause the hosts' central defensive pairing more and more problems. As he did so, the referee became more and more inconsistent and baffling in his decision-making, leading to a soft 56th-minute free kick award to Wes Hoolahan and a direct free kick attempt from Pilkington in a dangerous area. Thankfully, Howard scrambled across his line and batted his effort away to safety.
The American was a good deal more fortunate three minutes later, though, when Holt finally sprung the offside trap and found himself in acres of space behind the Everton defence but Howard got just enough on the ball as he charged towards the Norwich striker and the danger was cleared.
By the mid-way stage of the second half, Everton's passing game had more or less been harried out of them and there was more and more reliance on ineffective long balls from the back that the visitors' big defence regularly cleaned up. Meanwhile, Oviedo had inexplicably been switched to the right flank and was disappearing from the game for long periods. The decision was presumably an effort to get Pienaar more involved but with Baines making fewer and fewer forays forward, the strategy just robbed the Blues of one of their most inventive outlets.
The slender 1-0 advantage was looking less and less secure, too, not least when Norwich threatened to open up the Blues' defence twice in the space of a few minutes. On the second occasion, Holt pushed Hoolahan's square pass on to Snodgrass on the right side of the box but while he beat Howard from the angle with his shot, Heitinga was on hand to block his effort almost on the line.
At the other end, Everton remained a threat, albeit sporadically, but Baines deserved to extend the lead with a phenomenal run through the heart of the Canaries' defence in the 74th minute but, having skipped past three yellow shirts and unload, he saw Ruddy parry his shot away. Osman then sent a cross-cum-shot dribbling across the face of Norwich's goal with Jelavic expecting a cut-back and Naismith wasted an excellent breakaway with six minutes left where, had he found Jelavic with a centre behind the stranded defence he might have served up the second goal. Instead, he smashed it too long to a chorus of groans from the home faithful.
With Pilkington having despatched a towering header off Whitaker's 85th-minute cross straight at Howard, the game appeared won as the clock ticked into the last minute. Referee Jones had one more crucial intervention to make, though, blowing for a foul by Baines when Pilkington completely mis-kicked the ball barely 10 yards in front of him with no contact from the Everton man.
When the resulting free kick was swung in to the back post, Bassong popped up unmarked to head it low and goalwards, Howard, falling backwards, got an arm to it but could only divert it onto the underside of the bar and over the line. Goodison's collective shoulders slumped and another two points evaporated into the soggy Merseyside air.
A case could be made for the effect on the side from the absences of key players like Fellaini, MIrallas and Gibson and the reshuffled back four but Everton demonstrated by their first-half display that they had the measure of Norwich and the ability to create the chances required to put the game to bed. That they didn't, that they allowed another late goal to another set-piece however erroneously awarded rob them of another victory just adds to the frustration that is building over a season that promised so much just a few weeks ago.
That promise still exists, of course. West Bromwich Albion may continue to put the early media trumpeting of the Blues's Champions League chances in perspective by rolling on with another victory while Moyes's men stumble from one missed oppprtunity to the next, but while other challengers for fourth remain inconsistent and the possibility of an Everton run in the second half of the campaign exists, then optimism should remain high.
Victory today would have been important given the manner in which the fixture list is going to toughen up in the coming weeks but the players will know that a win against Arsenal on Wednesday night will get things back on track. Once again, though, it's going to take more ruthlessness in front of goal, more determination to press home superiority and better concentration at the back. The search for all three continues...
Everton returned to Goodison Park with a point to prove following last weekend's stumble at Reading. Fellaini is suspended, Neville and Anichebe out injured, Hibbert is on the bench and Coleman is missing (injured or dropped?) but Distin returned with Jagielka moved out to right back while neither Mirallas nor Gibson were included despite suggestions they would be returning from injury. Bryan Oviedo was given his first league start, mostly playing in front of Baines on the left.
Everton were attacking John Ruddy's goal from the off and there was almost an early goal from Osman, who tried to fire in a loose ball picked up for him by Naismith, curling it just inches wide of the far post. Pienaar bashed his knee challenging for the ball inside 5 minutes, giving concern of yet another injury for David Moyes to deal with.
Jagielka put in a very smart cross from nothing that Jelavic didn't seem to jump for and the chance went begging. Hitzlsperger floated a good ball forward that Ovideo did brilliantly with controlling it perfectly and placing it back on a plate for Naismith who smashed it home for a nice early goal after 12 minutes.
A great move and a brilliant one-two with Pienaar saw Baines into the area and firing on John Ruddy, who got down well to save. Naismith then went down in the corner of the area to the requisite shout: nothing from referee Mike Jones. In Gibson's absence, Hitzlsperger was an increasingly dominant calming influence in midfield. Baines curled in a great cross for Jelavic but he was edged off it a little too easily.
Holt managed to beat three Everton defenders than thankfully fluffed his shot badly and failed to threaten Howard when all alone. Oviedo then picked out Naismith with a superb ball forward from midfield, but Jelavic was offside for the final ball as Norwich started to see a lot more of the ball.
Some good work from Osman ended up with him shooting straight at John Ruddy with Oviedo really catching the eye. Everton won their first corner on 36 mins, Hitzlsperger swinging it in well but Jelavic headed wide as the ref predictably blew for a foul amongst the crazy jostling. The pace dropped and Norwich won their first corner that Bassong came very close to converting.
Pienaar and Osman combined nicely but, with the goal gaping, Osman produced one of his classic powder-puff passes straight into the arms of John Ruddy.
After the break, and Mike Jones gave Norwich a dubious free kick that was defended away before Tettey lashed it well over. It was terribly scrappy and disjointed fare, with Jones giving Norwich every opportunity, a Pilkington free-kick nearly catching out Howard.
It was rubbish football allround, Howard needed to be alert for a ball over the top when Holt beat the offside trap. Baines raised the standard with an excellent delivery no-one could finish it off. Past the hour mark and Everton finally got a corner but the officiating was poor, both in controlling the 6-yard scrum, blatant encroachment, and a deflected Jelavic shot wrongly called as a goal-kick.
It was just as scrappy in the Everton area, the ball could have gone anywhere as the game went from bad to worse with Grant Holt the villain of the piece, but it was Johnson who earnt the first yellow for a foul on Oviedo. Everton were very vulnerable as Norwich again came close, Snodgrass beating Howard but not the four blue shirts back defending the goalline.
At the other end, some better work ended in Pienaar lofting the ball to no-one where the hell was Jelavic? Some absolutely dire football on show but Oviedio was trying to raise the stakes with a low shot on Ruddy. But Everton's weak link was Pienaar, who had gotten worse and worse. But Baines did superbly to run through and lash in a shot on Ruddy.
Osman was next to make progress and play it in to where Jelavic should have been waiting... but again he was dawdling around 5 yards back instead of lurking in the danger area. Ruddy was then forced off with a knee or groin problem, to be replaced for the last 10 mins by Mark Bunn.
The game was summed up when Naismith and Jelavic got behind the Norwich defence and all Naismith had to do was square it to his pal Jelavic, who this time was up with the play... Naismith's ball was absolutely atrocious. While at the other end, Howard again had to produce the goods as the last line of defence from a determined header.
Oveido was fouled on the edge of the area. Tettey was finally booked for blatant encroachment (what happened to that 10-yard rule???). Baines finally curled in a decent shot that was just a foot over.
Norwich got the softest of free-kicks when Morison missed his kick. It was delivered very deep to the far post were Bassong did very well to power the ball through Howard, who had hesitated and gone back to his line instead of plucking the ball out of the air. The goal had been coming all second half, and Moyes's bizarre reaction was to swap Naismith for Vellios with two of the four extra minutes already gone.
Some games are tremendous adverts for the Premier League... this was anything but. Another 2 points squandered by the bumbling Blues.
If a hat-load of missed chances, porous defending and four consecutive scoring draws hadn't provided ample warning that Everton's promising start to the season was in danger of turning into a "what might have been", last weekend's debacle at Reading was hopefully the wake-up call that David Moyes's team needed.
They return to Goodison Park for consecutive home games with a point to prove, not only to those clubs that would be rivals for fourth place come May but also to themselves and their long-suffering supporters.
Injuries to key players, most notably Darron Gibson and Kevin Mirallas, have played their part in the Blues' failure to either kill off opposition teams or keep hold of precious advantages but the fact remains that the Blues have been good enough going forward to have accumulated significantly more points than they have to date... and they know it.
So, time for Moyes's men to start backing up the diminishing hype with victories, starting with the visit of Norwich City this weekend. It won't be easy; the Canaries comes to Merseyside buouyed by last Saturday's 1-0 win over Manchester United.
Chris Hughton's side made a rocky start to the new season and looked destined for a desperate scrap against relegation in the aftermath of Paul Lambert's departure in the summer for Aston Villa. Unbeaten in five games now, though, they've started to find themselves and sit 13th in the table coming into this round of fixtures.
They've yet to win away from home this season, though, and that will encourage Moyes as he plots his team's path to what would be a fourth home win of the Premier League campaign.
He will have to do it without the in-form Marouane Fellaini, however. The Belgian picked up his fifth yellow card at the Madjeski Stadium last weekend and serves a one-game ban. (Rather against comparatively weaker Norwich than Arsenal or Manchester City is the general feeling, though.)
Down one talented Belgium then, Moyes may be able to welcome Mirallas back after he missed the Reading defeat with a hamstring strain. The club's medical staff won't want to rush the tricky forward back before he is ready and the manager was cagey about his prospects of starting in his pre-match press conference but the 25 year-old may play some part. He would likely take Fellaini's place behind Nikica Jelavic or take the wide-right role with Steven Naismith playing in the hole.
Also on the cards for a return is Gibson who hasn't played any first-team football for 10 weeks. Moyes was similarly cautious about his prospects, but after coming through unscathed from 63 minutes' action for the U-21s earlier in the week, he too could figure at some stage in the proceedings, if not from the start. Should he fail to make it, Thomas Hitzlsperger would likely make his full home debut.
Elsewhere in the side, there were suggestions from some quarters on Friday that Seamus Coleman and Sylvain Distin were struggling to be fit with unspecified injuries which, with Tony Hibbert doubtful and Phil Neville ruled out, would pose a serious problem at right back.
Norwich have proven themselves difficult to break down in recent weeks and sides like that have been a challenge for Everton despite their attacking talent and potency provided from the likes of Leighton Baines. More territorial superiority will be the expected order of the day; the question is, can the forward line make it pay?
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2012-13 Reports Index|
|Naismith (90+2' Vellios)|
|Subs not used|
|Ruddy (82' Bunn)|
|Snodgrass (89' Jackson,|
|Hoolahan (75' Morison)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Aston Villa||0 - 0||Arsenal|
|Everton||1 - 1||Norwich|
|Man United||3 - 1||QPR|
|Stoke City||1 - 0||Fulham|
|Sunderland||2 - 4||West Brom|
|Wigan||3 - 2||Reading|
|Chelsea||0 - 0||Man City|
|So'hampton||2 - 0||Newcastle|
|Swansea||0 - 0||Liverpool|
|Tottenham||3 - 1||West Ham|
|3||West Bromwich Albion||26|
|8||West Ham United||19|
|20||Queens Park Rangers||4|