The frustrations that have encapsulated much of the last 10 weeks for Everton came to the fore in a rude reality check at the Madjeski Stadium as Reading somehow collected their first win of the season at the Blues' expense.
Based on their efforts before the break, after dominating the first half almost impressively as they had against Fulham two weeks ago, a draw would have been a travesty for David Moyes's side; defeat unthinkable. And yet, when the full-time whistle blew, the Blues were forced to reflect on more missed chances, yet more infuriating refereeing injustice and another three points that went begging.
Two clear penalties were denied them by the officials in the first half — one for a clear foul on Steven Naismith by Kaspars Gorkss for which referee Martin Atkinson may have been unsighted but was committed in full view of his assistant; the other a handball by Sean Morrisson that stopped Nikica Jelavic's goalbound shot — but, as has been the case so often this season, Everton could have won comfortably had they just converted one of their myriad chances in the first half or been able to maintain their momentum into the second.
Unfortunately, having failed to have put themselves out of sight by half time, they allowed Reading to come back into the game, gain confidence from another poorly-defended set-piece goal and then plunder the points when Adam Le Fondre slotted home a penalty following Seamus Coleman's clumsy challenge.
The "what ifs" for the Blues started as early as the second minute. Out of the traps strongly, they forced their first clear-cut opening from their first corner where Phil Jagielka's close-range prod was stopped by Adam Federici but the ball fell ivitingly for Jelavic by the near post. Sadly, the Croatian went for the more elaborate half-volley with the top of his boot over the more simple side-foot with the goal at his mercy and he bounced it over the crossbar.
Leon Osman, fresh off his England debut, executed a neat spin and shot that the goalkeeper gathered before shambolic Reading defending gifted the Blues the opening goal after just 10 minutes. Jelavic hooked the ball back towards the six-yard line from the byline, Marouane Fellaini caused panic in the defence as he tried to chest it down for a shot and Naismith nipped in through the confusion to tuck the ball home for his second goal of the season.
The home side had a chance to level immediately when Tim Howard suffered one of his moments of madness and got caught well outside of his area but Le Fondre couldn't hit the empty net and the Blues gratefully accepted the let-off, resuming their control of the match.
And the chances kept coming for Moyes's men. A neat interchange between Steven Pienaar and full debutant Thomas Hitzlsperger, in for the injured Phil Neville, almost ended with a goal for Jelavic but he couldn't divert the ball goalwards. Then Pienaar himself went on a tear through the center of Reading's midfield but lashed his right-foot shot wide. And Naismith spurned a good chance to set up the second goal when the South African put him in behind the defence but the Scot chose to shoot and fluffed his lines as he choked the ball into the turf in front of the 'keeper.
As the new man in the side, Hitzlsperger had a decent first half, doing the simple things well and pushing the ball on for Osman to be the more creative spark in the centre, but the German did get a decent sight of goal later in the first half when he unloaded from 25 yards but Federici parried his effort.
And his partner, Osman, had perhaps the best chance to get the crucial second before half time when Naismith played him in beaitifully for a one-on-one chance against the 'keeper but Federici managed to get a crucial touch on the England man's shot with his arm to divert it inches over the bar.
Jelavic's neat chest-down and volley that was stopped in its tracks by Morrison four minutes before the interval was the last chance of the first half but the Blues were in control and on course for three points.
Which made the second period all the more inexplicable. Reading began the more purposeful and Osman was forced into a block to stop Jay Tabb's goalbound shot within four minutes of the restart before Hitlsperger was adjudged to have fouled the same player in Everton's half. Coleman appeared to have been charged with picking up Le Fondre but lost him as the ball was flighted into the box and the striker headed home unchallenged to level the scores.
After Hitzlsperger wasted an excellent counter-attack with a poor finish back at one end, Le Fondre scuffed a gilt-edged effort at the other allowing Howard to save in an incident that should have served as ample warning for Moyes's side that they could get caught out at the back if they didn't remain vigilent. On the contrary; as the cohesion with which they'd dictated the first half fell away, big gaps started appearing in front of Everton's back four and Le Fondre curled one narrowly wide in the 64th minute.
And after Hitzlsperger had seen a terrific half-volley flash inches wide of Federici's left-hand post, Osman got done on the edge of the Reading box following a corner and Coleman had to use every ounce of pace to race back and execute a brilliant saving tackle on Le Fondre before the striker could get off his shot from 20 yards.
The Irishman was less impressive four minutes later, though, when, in challenging Le Fondre for an aerial ball in the Everton area, he jumped into and flattened the forward leaving referee Atkinson with the kind of decision not even he could screw up. A penalty was duly awarded and Le Fondre sent Howard the wrong way to score what would prove to be the winner.
Moyes withdrew Naismith and threw Bryan Oviedo on on the opposite flank and the lively Costa Rican won a corner immediately from which Fellaini came agonisingly close to rescuing a point. Frustratingly, his free header came back off the inside of the post and into the 'keeper's arms and the hosts survived.
Apostolos Vellios was also introduced and he had a late headed opportunity off a corner that he couldn't steer goalwards but Blues fans were left to look ruefully over at a bench that, at the moment, doesn't really have anyone capable of turning a game. It was up to the eleven that started to get the job done and, once again, they just weren't clinical enough in the first half and faded badly in the second.
If Everton's season isn't going to be looked back on as one enormous what-might-have-been, they have got to start putting these lesser sides to the sword. Moyes is clearly aware of the problem and is no doubt doing all he can to address the issue in training but his side are giving away crucial points with slack marking at set pieces and profligacy in front of the opposition goal.
With teams around us in the table regularly slipping up, you can't help but think where the Blues could be in the table if they had got all the points their attacking performances have deserved this season. As it is, they have now won just once in five games and have slipped into fifth place while West Bromwich Albion put into some measure of perspective the new-found media fascination with Everton as dark horses for the Champions League.
Back-to-back home games against Norwich and Arsenal sides who will both have been buouyed by their own recent wins will offer stern tests but they will at least be at Goodison Park where so far Moyes's side have shown resilience and the ability to score goals. Two wins from those two and this significant set-back in Berkshire will seem a lot less important, particularly as, in the context of their slow starts to previous campaigns, fifth place remains an excellent platform from which to build in the second half of the season.
No Phil Neville for Everton at Reading today, with Thomas Hitzlsperger getting his first start, behind Naismith as Gibson and Mirallas miss out; Hibbert and Anichebe failed late fitness tests.
An early corner was a gift for Jagielka, who failed to bury his close-range shot, but in the follow-up, a cross back in found Jelavic all alone at the far post with a golden chance that he somehow scooped high and wide. Should be ahead in the second minute!
Reading had a couple of set-pieces that could have been threatening. But Everton went ahead when Jelavic kept the ball alive at the far post and a fumbled ball dropping infront of Fellaini and a couple of defenders stood up nicely for Naismith to stride forward and slot home.
Pienaar got in a good ball for Jelavic who shot fractionally wide. Naismith was taken down at the side of the Reading area and there were screams for a penalty but the ref gave nothing as Everton in their all-black kits kept pushing the home side back.
Roberts dragged at the shirt of Baines who was on the counter-attack, and he picked up the first yellow card. Coleman the got a silly booking for booting the ball away after he couldn't quite get his foot around it to keep it in play.
Gorkks took out Coleman cynically and rightly went in the referee's book. A great run by Jelavic was followed by a not -so-great cross that evaded Fellaini, perfectly positioned. Hitzlsperger took a pop and forced a punch from Frederici.
Naismith played in Osman perfectly but the new England man fluffed his lines badly by failing to score when in on the keeper. Then there was a chance for Jelavic on another punch from Frederici but the Iceman's cool shot was deflected away by an arm... but again no penalty given. It was developing into another one of those games where Everton dominate and pepper the opposition goal with chances but make very few of them count.
Everton had to defend a couple of early corners after the break and struggled for the first five minutes to reassert their dominance. Indeed, a Shorey free-kick given away by Hitzlsperger was headed home with ease by Le Fondre, and it was once again all square, Everton with everything to do once again.
Reading threatened to score again with another dangerous free-kick as Everton tried to reconstruct their cool passing game, Coleman winning a corner taken by Hitzlsperger. But the pressure was soon back on, Jagielka tihs time guilty of fouling.
Pienaar looked to release Jelavic but his chance was denied by a perfect tackle from Morrison. But Howard had to be alert when Roberts played in Le Fondre. At the other end, Osman's attempt on goal was rather poor .
Some clever work between Pienaar and Fellaini set up a snapshot for Hitzlsperger but he volleyed wide as the black shirts finally started to get a better grip of the game again.
But another free-kick, Coleman conned by Roberts, saw a dangerous ball swung in that Fellaini defended well against Morrison's kamikaze attack.
20 mins left, and well past Moyes's normal sub time, there was no movement on the subs bench, Moyes believing there was little on their that could do better than the ones on the field. A couple of Everton corners led only to a Reading breakout that saw a brilliant covering tackle by Coleman on Le Fondre.
England star Leon Osman seemed to be in with a glorious chance but the man with the clever feet inexplicably stumbled and miscontrolled the ball instead of lashing it into the net and a nothing ball resulted.
At the other end, disaster as Coleman, who had been booed all match for some reason, drove into the back of and a penalty awarded was lashed home by Le Fondre to surely give Reading their first win of the season. Fellaini was booked, presumably for protesting, and he will now miss the Norwich game. Moyes reacted to the setback by swapping out Naismith for Oviedo.
Fellaini headed into the ground and off the post, back into the hands of Frederici. Moyes then puled Hitzlsperger for Vellios with less than 10 mins left... too little, too late, surely?
Everton huffed and puffed but the lack of crisp and decisive finishing in the first half would be the story of this game as they allowed Reading to steal all the points, condemning Everton to only their second defeat of the season, but at a crucial time as the come toward the end of what was on paper an easier run of games... if there really is such a thing in the Premier Leaue!
The frustrating sequence of draws — not to mention Nikica Jelavic's mini-drought — ended by victory over Sunderland at Goodison Park last Saturday, Everton resume their quest to keep hold of the coat tails of the top three with a trip south to Reading.
David Moyes has done his standard "we're skint" dance to the media as they start up the rumour mill despite the New Year being still seven weeks away, but Evertonians have experienced enough barren transfer windows to know that there's not much point dwelling too much on the prospects of new faces until the time comes.
That means team and fans alike focusing on the players available and backing them to just keep on plugging away with the impressive form Everton have been in this season and picking up as many points as possible.
The task has already been compromised by the extended absence of Darron Gibson and the Irishman will be missing from a 10th successive game in all competitions when the Blues take on the winless Royals this weekend as he continues a protracted fitness battle against his injured thigh tendon.
Even more damaging is the loss of Kevin Mirallas who, unlike Everton's last away day at Fulham, will not recover in time from injury sustained the previous weekend. The Belgian wizard suffered a minor tear to his hamstring in the 2-1 win over Sunderland and is ruled out.
Tony Hibbert (calf) and Victor Anichebe (hamstring) will undergo late fitness tests, however, to assess their readiness to return to action but with the exception of Steven Naismith coming in for Mirallas on the right flank, no changes are expected to Moyes's starting line-up at the Madjeski Stadium.
Bryan McDermott, who is very likely to be without the pacy Jimmy Kebe as well as Alex McCarthy, Danny Guthrie and Jem Karacan, has seen his side draw four of their five home games so far this season and that will no doubt give Moyes hope that his men can grab all three points like they did on their visit to this ground six years ago.
They stand a great chance if they can play anything like the way they did at Craven Cottage a fortnight ago but they will also need to stamp out their habit of conceding the opening goal. The Blues haven't won an away game where they've let in the first goal in 10 matches now.
With this eminently winnable game and back-to-back home games to follow before the end of the month, Everton have a great opportunity to get points on the board before they trip to the Etihad Stadium on 1st December. That game against the Champions, while it represents a terrific opportunity to atone for last season's surrender, will clearly be the Blues' most daunting fixture thus far but the added confidence that would come from going into the game breathing down Mancini's men's necks in the table could be invaluable.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2012-13 Reports Index|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Subs not used|
|4||West Bromwich Albion||23|
|7||West Ham United||19|
|20||Queens Park Rangers||4|