Everton booked their place in the FA Cup quarter finals and moved within one game of a return to Wembley by seeing off Oldham Athletic's plucky challenge in this evening's fifth round replay.
Though it was a performance that at times lacked authority and cohesion, after being pegged back by the Latics in the original tie at Boundary Park 10 days ago and then suffering a major set-back in the Premier League at Norwich on Saturday, priority number one for David Moyes's side was to win. That they did thanks to the three-goal cushion that Leon Osman's glancing header provided just after an hour's play and though Matt Smith would score another unchallenged header to give Tony Philliskirk's men a ray of hope, the result wasn't ever in much doubt.
Injury to Marouane Fellaini forced one change on Moyes, with Phil Neville coming into central midfield, and the manager made another in starting Kevin Mirallas in place of Steven Naismith wide on the right. For those who felt that the Belgian should have started at Carrow Road three days ago, Mirallas made their point with an often lively display and a deftly-taken goal to open the scoring after a quarter of an hour.
After his lovely footwork had set up an early opportunity for Leighton Baines, one the defender fired into the defensive wall after three minutes, it was Mirallas who arrived in the box to meet Darron Gibson's wicked cross from the right and side-foot past the stranded Bouzanis to make it 1-0 to Everton.
Oldham, however, had shown no signs of being overawed by their top-flight opponents and either of two incidents in the 17th minute could have had them level almost immediately. First, after the ball had ricochted kindly to the visitors off Phil Jagielka, Jose Baxter curled an excellent shot around Tim Howard but off the face of the post; then, in the immediate aftermath Jagielka drove an attempted clearance straight at Gibson's arm in the Everton area but, somewhat fortuitously, referee Michael Oliver waved play on .
Matters were evened up on the penalty-claims front a few minutes later when Nikica Jelavic was blatantly tugged back by Tarkowski in the Latics' box but escaped punishment before Baines prompted Bouzanis to push his raking left-foot drive wide the post, but the Blues would get their chance from the spot 11 minutes before half time.
Again Jelavic went down under the attentions of a defender as he tried to profit from superb work by Seamus Coleman's on the right but Brown inexplicably thrust out an arm to intercept the loose ball and the referee had no option but to award a penalty for handball. Bouzanis guess the right way and got a glove on Baines' kick but could not prevent the ball from nestling in his net.
2-0 up and coasting, it offered Everton the chance to settle down and establish some rhythm to their game but they seemed to be hampered by the general sloppiness and lapses in concentraction that have been a feature of their recent struggle for form. Osman had a particularly ragged evening in possession, frequently giving the ball away, Gibson was susprisingly inconsistent with his own distribution, and though the desperation to end his goal drought was etched all over his face and demeanour, Jelavic just couldn't find his touch or stay on his feet long enough to be a threat.
Much of the onus for producing when the Blues went forward fell to Steven Pienaar, who had a decent game overall, the quick and unpredictable feet of Mirallas, and the purpose and energy of Coleman and it was the Irishman who to set up Osman with a great chance eight minutes into the second half but the midfielder choked his shot and the goalkeeper was able to make a comfortable catch.
He would get the crucial touch to score the third goal nine minutes later, though, one that would partially extinguish a growing fire in Oldham's belly. The League One side had gone close to forcing an opening down their left but Neville cut out a dangerous cross by the near post and Lee Croft had flashed a decent effort into the side netting from the other side a couple of minutes later.
But Everton scored what would prove to be a killer third goal in the 62nd minute when Pienaar whipped a cross in from the left flank, Osman glanced it on with the merest of touches and though Jelavic didn't make contact as the ball flew past him, his presence was enough to confuse Bouzanis and the ball ended up in the far corner to make it 3-0.
Philliskirk had thrown the hero of the original game, Matt Smith, on by this point and the towering striker would have the ball in the net again barely two minutes later. Distin had done well to block a cross from the right after failing to deal with a bouncing ball on the edge of his own area but the Frenchman lost Smith altogether at the resulting corner and was left tugging vainly at the 6' 6" striker's sleeve as he rose to head past Howard from close range. Another poorly-defended set piece by Everton's defence and another soft goal conceded.
Oldham would try gamely to force another goal but mostly succeeded in battering Howard in aerial battles that left the American hobbling by the end of the game from a particularly poor rash challenge by Simpson. They had moved the ball around quickly and surprisingly well earlier in the game but were forced to resort to a more direct approach as the game wore on and the hosts were mostly comfortable in dealing with the tactic.
Instead, it was Everton who went closer to adding to the scoresheet in the closing stages and it should really have been 4-1 after a superb counter-attacking move that ended with Mirallas finding Jelavic with his back to goal with a pin-point cross and a neat lay-off to Gibson. Unfortunately, the Irishman lashed his shot over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Given the team's recent struggles, it would have been nice to see a really slick, accomplished display by the Blues and, in particular, a goal for Jelavic, but the mantra coming in was "just win" so the result and progress to the next round to face Wigan is all that matters in the final reckoning.
There some genuinely impressive moments in which to revel, though, most of them involving Mirallas, and the hope is that this first win in five games can provide a platform on which to build as the team looks to consolidate a place in the top six and keep their European hopes alive.
Another home game in the Cup against Wigan provides a wonderful opportunity to return to Wembley, though, for the semi-finals and the chance to atone for last year's disappointment at the hands of the neighbours. Onward...
Everton started off playing toward the Gwladys Street End. After some early Oldham pressure, it was Everton attacking down the left but the first real action saw Mirallas trying to dribble in and getting tripped. Baines fired the free-kick straight into the wall from a really good position. A pretty even first 5 mins...
The early football was pretty scrappy stop-start stuff until Pienaar appeared to play in Jelavic but the Croatian inexplicably played the ball straight back rather tan advancing past his man and in on goal!
Pienaar conceded an unnecessary free kick but the ball was lifted straight in to Howard. Everton applied some pressure with a corner and then worked the ball around well until a great ball in from Gibson that Kevin Mirallas ran on to and finished superbly.
Baxter pulled out an absolutely exquisite curler that beat Howard hands down and smacked the inside of the post, coming back across goal, and in the follow-up Gibson turned his back on a clearance and inadvertently handballed in the area but the ref made the sensible decision as there was nothing he could do about it, although he did gain advantage.
Another free kick, wide right by Gibson, but cleared easily as Everton sat back a little with less urgency as they had the leading goal they needed. Jelavic had his arm grabbed and was flipped in the area, but no penalty given. Jelavic was struggling to get decent space, getting closed down or fouled often.
Baines lashed one Bale-style form distance, forcing a touch from Bouzanis, but nothing came from the corner. Jelavic was fouled again on cross from Coleman, then the ball bounced up on to Croft's arm but the ref was already blowing for the penalty, converted by Baines despite a good attempt to save.
A superb corner by Baxter was met with a whistle for more argey-bargy in the area. As Oldham seemed to be playing more penetrating football, knowing they needed to get back in the game. At the other end, Jelavic got free to head a good Coleman cross but he headed over. Baxter did very poorly with a free-kick from a good position that he floated over everyone and out for a throw-in at the corner flag.
Howard came galloping out for a high ball and somehow got a free-kick for clattering into Tarkowski. Some strange ref decisions getting ire from both sets of fans, Oliver bizarrely sending Osman to the sideline after a tumble that had not involved the Everton trainer... very odd stuff.
Everton did break with some pace just before the break, but it said everything that Jelavic allowed Mirallas's excellent ball to hit him on the arse, rather than controlling it and taking it on toward goal. But Everton were in firm command at the break.
Jelavic tried to make space for himself in a crowded area, only to tee up a shot from Jagielka that was blazed over. Osman then got a peach if a cross from Coleman but only a powder-puff left foot to push it through to Bouzanis. Oldham then went for a double change on 55 mins, with Simpson and Smith, who needed Neville to deny him at the near post although the visitors pressed hard on the follow-up from the corner.
Oldham were able to pin Everton back for a while, Croft lashing a dangerous shot into the side netting, the Blues struggling to get a kick. But from nothing on the left, a speulative Pienaar cross was glanced on by Osman, bouncing near Jelavic running in, who deceived Bouzanis, his fumbled save insufficient to stop the ball bouncing over the line.
But Matt Smith pulled one out and headed home with ease despite having his arm pulled by Distin, the pace of the game suddenly electric, Coleman lashing a rather selfish shot well wide. A poor cross from Pienaar was followed by a bizarre slow cross from Osman that bobbled across the Oldham area, untroubled by anyone as Steven Naismith started to warm up.
After Oldham made their final change, Everton slowed things down, and tried to avoid making any silly mistakes... but immediately looked sloppy, a hospital pass between Baines and Distin in their own half almost causing problems.
Gibson should have scored after a great move in which Jelvaic teed him up perfectly, as Naismith replaced Mirallas. Howard went down heavily near the end and needed some attention. Hitzlsperger came on for his first sub appearance in six(?) games right at the end, replacing Pienaar, as David Moyes sought to avoid the added time nonsense from Boundary Park. There a last-minute corner for Oldham but the delivery was poor.
In the end, the job was done, and Everton were through fairly comfortably to the Sixth Round of the FA Cup and another Goodison game to look forward too, against Wigan.
It's no exaggeration to say that with Saturday's defeat at Norwich, the entire complexion of Everton's season changed in the span of 10 minutes as the Canaries came back from a goal down to win 2-1 with the kind of breath-taking, stoppage time heroics that Evertonians have enjoyed on occasion this season… back when Champions League football appeared more than just a pipe dream.
In the aftermath of that defeat, though, has come the cold, hard realisation that a top-four finish was probably always a bridge too far for such a small core squad of players even if their propensity to throw away points from winning positions has been a key factor in the growing gap between the Blues and the top five.
Anything is possible over the final 10 games, of course, but it will take an extraordinary transformation in this Everton side to close that gap and finish among the Champions League places, meaning that the FA Cup campaign assumes paramount importance for David Moyes.
That, of course, puts huge importance on the Fifth Round replay against Oldham Athletic at Goodison Park this week. Victory over the League One side would set up another favourable tie at home against Wigan Athletic and make a repeat trip to Wembley — and the opportunity for atonement for last year's debacle against Liverpool — a reality.
Moyes suggested in his pre-match press conference that injuries will dictate his team selection, with Victor Anichebe still a doubt after sitting out at Carrow Road with a groin injury. The manager hinted at a couple of other fitness concerns that cropped up after Saturday's game, perhaps surrounding Steven Pienaar who was withdrawn in the final few minutes, Leighton Baines who has been soldiering on with ankle issues since the turn of the year, or Darron Gibson who could still be feeling the effects of an apparent bone spur on his troublesome thigh tendon.
In the wake of the disappointment against Norwich, Moyes may make changes to his starting XI regardless. In the context of his pre-match call on Kevin Mirallas to deliver more now that he is back to something approaching full fitness, the manager's decision to leave him on the bench for 78 minutes on Saturday was perplexing so the Belgian could get the nod to start against Oldham.
And perhaps in the quest for leadership in what has become the biggest game of the season so far, he may turn to Phil Neville, perhaps pushing Seamus Coleman further forward on the right flank.
Whatever line-up Moyes opts for, the Blues' biggest opponents, at least against the lower-division Latics, will likely be themselves. They had more than enough in the tank to beat Oldham at Boundary Park 10 days ago and that will be the case again on Tuesday evening. The psychology of the players and their ability to create and convert the chances required to claim that quarter-final match-up with Wigan will be all important.
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