Everton got back to winning ways and rediscovered some attacking flair behind superb displays by Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas, both of whom weighed in with second-half goals, not to mention Seamus Coleman who served up the opener for Marouane Fellaini that set the Blues on their way three minutes before half time.
David Moyes oversaw a victory in the Premier League for the first time in four games as Everton drew within two points of Arsenal in fifth place (who play tomorrow against Tottenham) and kept their hopes of European qualification alive.
The occasions when Evertonians have been able to enjoy their side having a threat down both flanks this season have been few in number but they got a taste of how potent the Blues can be with Mirallas, Pienaar, Coleman and Baines all contributing to a result that could have been much worse for the visitors had the Nikica Jelavic of a year ago been on the field.
The Croatian ran tirelessly for the cause today in a bid to end a drought without a League goal that has now stretched to three months but his chronic lack of confidence was in constant evidence in everything from his first touch and distribution to the timing of his shooting and he spurned two or three great chances to get back on the scoresheet.
Credit must go to Moyes for giving him every opportunity to change his fortunes, though, as he elected to hook the well-below-par Leon Osman in favour of Victor Anichebe with 15 minutes left rather than withdraw Jelavic — though, ironicially, the substitute would actually deny him his best chance of the afternoon when, with the no.7 in space near the penalty spot with no one around him, Anichebe went for glory instead but could only steer his shot from the angle into the defender on the line and the ball was cleared.
While the scoreline could have been worse for Reading based on the final hour of play, the first half an hour saw more of the disjointed, nervy Everton that has been such a frustrating feature of their recent performances. Indeed, it was the relegation-haunted Royals who came within the width of a post of taking the lead after 18 minutes when Adam Le Fondre, the scourge of the Blues in the reverse fixture in November, crashed a shot off the upright following a corner.
The home side just couldn't find any rhythm in the early going and their morale was not helped with the loss of Phil Jagielka who was clattered by a poor Le Fondre challenge in only the third minute and it was determined in the next couple of minutes that he would not be able to continue due to a nasty gash to his ankle. John Heitinga was brought on to replace him.
It wasn't until the 29th minute that a switch appeared to be flipped for Everton and they burst into life in the final third. Fellaini threaded a terrific throughball down the left channel for the overlapping Leighton Baines and while his cut-back found Pienaar in the penalty area, the South African's shot was stopped by the head of the prone Mariappa before it could test Steven Taylor in the Reading goal.
A minute later, Osman floated a beautiful ball over the top that put Jelavic into the clear behind Mariappa but the goalkeeper came out to close down the angle well leaving the Crotian with the option of trying an audacious first-time lob or shooting low. Opting for the latter, his shot was on target but Taylor beat it behind for a corner.
Three minutes after that, Mirallas, who had switched flanks with Pienaar by this point, warmed the 'keeper's palms with a well-struck drive from 20 yards after he'd cut in from the left.
The reward for Everton's transformation came three minutes before half time, though, when Coleman surged his way to the byline and crossed to the edge of the six-yard box where Fellaini rose above two yellow jerseys to direct an excellent header into the top corner of the net to make it 1-0.
And the Belgian almost sneaked a second with an attempted cross from almost the same position as Coleman's delivery that was swerving wickedly under the crossbar before Taylor pushed it over.
The second half began in a similarly even vein to the first and Le Fondre almost crept in to seize on Noel Hunt's flick-on but Jan Mucha, deputising competently enough for Tim Howard in the League for the first time since he joined the Club, did enough to get in the way of the ball and it was cleared after bouncing of his shoulder.
Everton resumed control soon afterwards, though, and lovely footwork by Mirallas in the box as he latched onto Pienaar's flighted ball into the box took him past his marker with one touch but, on the stretch, his shot was blocked by a defender.
That was followed by Jelavic's best chance as Osman scooped the ball deliciously over the defence for the striker but instead of putting his foot through it first time as he did against Tottenham in December, he tried to take it around the 'keeper and Taylor got two gloves on the ball to push it aside. As Jelavic went down rather theatrically under the attentions of Ian Harte, Fellaini tried to side-foot hime from close range but his shot was stopped a yard from the goalline and hacked away by the Reading defence.
The second goal didn't take much longer to arrive, though, and it was all down to Pienaar who powered in from the right flank and towards the area before unloading a belter with his supposedly weaker foot that just flew in. A fine individual goal who put on as impressive a personal display as he has done all season, much of it from the opposite flank to his usual partner, Baines.
Mirallas was enjoying himself just as much on the other side and after jinking past two players and whistling a shot across the face of goal that came within inches of either creeping inside the far post or arriving at the feet of the in-rushing Fellaini, the Belgian wizard made it 3-0 in the 66th minute.
Pienaar split the visitors' defence with a perfectly-timed and weighted throughball that released Mirallas and, after feinting to curl a shot to Taylor's left, he tucked the ball inside his right-hand post instead.
Reading were roused as a result into a belated flurry of activity at the other end, with Mucha making one excellent stop to get a hand to Jobi McAnuff's fierce effort and allowing another to squirm behind from the same player.
The game's intensity would slacken off a little in the final quarter of an hour but while Reading would ruin Mucha's clean sheet in the 84th minute when Anichebe failed to track Harte as he overlapped down the visitors' right and his cross was met with a free header by substitute Hal Robson-Kanu, Everton came close to nothing a fourth at the other end.
First, Mirallas was teed up by Pienaar's clever backheel to the edge of the box but his shot was beaten away by Taylor; then, Anichebe found himself goalside of his marker with room to drive in on goal from the left side of the box and he eschewed the gesturing Jelavic who was in an ocean of space before seeing his goalbound effort stopped on the line.
All in all, while by no means a perfect performance from Everton they still managed to get the job down in the final third without having to rely on the mis-firing Jelavic to grab the goals. Mirallas, Pienaar and Coleman were terrific for most of the afternoon and even the disruptions to the side in defence and in goal failed to have much of an effect overall. Mucha appeared fairly comfortable despite so long out at the top level and though questions might be raised over the positioning of Heitinga and Distin for Reading's goal, the Dutchman looked solid after replacing Jagielka.
There is little question that a repeat of this kind of attacking display next Saturday will see the Blues safely through to Wembley against a Wigan side who conceded four goals without reply against Liverpool today. This win helps keep Moyes's men close enough to the teams above them for the time being with two more home League games to come this month before the trip to Spurs in early April. The season remains very much alive...
Tim Howard suffered a back injury against Oldham and that gives Jan Mucha a Premier League debut after nearly three years at Everton, with Under-18 keeper Mason Springthorpe stepping up to the bench (rather than Mateusz Taudul, the Under-21 keeper, who is also injured). Marouane Fellaini returns as the only other change after sitting out against Oldham, Captain Neville going to the bench. For reading Hope Akpan made a return to Goodison Park after joining Crawley Town after leaving Everton Academy.
Jelavic should have scored in the first minute but messed it up completely. Phil Jagielka was injured in a bad challenge inside 3 minutes, and a caution for Adam Le Fondre. A couple of early corners by Kevin Mirallas came to nought as Heitinga was forced to come on in place of Jagielka.
Heitinga gave away a poor free-kick but Mucha hod no problem stopping Harte's effort. Kkebe then seemed to have a great chance but Mucha thwarted him, the Reading striker then pulling up and going off too. When play resumed, a magnificent strike from Le Fondre smacked off the bar as all the play was in the Everton half.
With half-an-hour gone, it had been a very poor game with little of note from Everton going forward until Baines centered well for Pienaar whose shot from close rage was blocked when, with more craft, he could have scored. Then, a perfect long ball for Jelavic, his first touch poor, all he could do is hit it weakly off the keeper's body.
Mirallas fired in a great strike, forcing a good save off Taylor after a determined run in as the Blues had finally come to life. More good work from the Belgian won a corner that he swung far too deep. Reading pushed the Blues back but it broke down after a poor corner.
At the other end, it finally came good, Coleman getting to the byeline, putting one up perfectly for Fellaini to nod home. Finally a goal!
In stoppage time, Fellaini tried an audacious shot from near the corner flag that Taylor had to sweep behind. The second half was pretty scrappy to start with, both sides creating half-chances that might have led to more. Mirallas got in a decent shot as Everton pressured more, to create a strange sequence of play, Mirallas driving in then Jelavic and then Fellaini unable to dig out a shot, then Jelavic getting pulled down but no penalty called.
But just before the hour mark, Pienaar put the Blues further ahead with a beautiful strike that flew past Taylor into the top corner of the Gwladys Street net.
Akpan tried a speculative shot that flew well wide. Mirallas really should have scored a third when the ball came to him wide left but he took too many touches and then fired just wide with Fellaini running in. Reading had an appeal for handball as Distin slid in to make a block, Mucha not looking too confident on the corner as Reading forced the play after the goal.
Pienaar then slotted through a perfect ball for Kevin Mirallas who finished well, inside the near post, to give Everton finally a commanding 3 - 0 lead.
Mucha did really well to stop a difficult shot from McAnuff with Wright on top of him. Gibson had a pop from distance but it lacked conviction and flew wide.
Then a great passage of play building from the left, Baines and Pienaar setting up Mirallas but his drilled shot was too close to Taylor, as Everton finally started to relax a little, in pretty effective command... but desirous of a rare clean sheet. Pienaar went off to a great round of applause for a really good display that finally produced some end product.
But they could not keep that clean sheet, Robson-Kanu heading home easily at the near post off a good cross from Harte, no chance for Mucha.
A great setup by Mirallas for Anichebe to run in and clip past Taylor but Harte was on the line to clear it away.
A win by a 2-goal margin in a must-win game. It could of course have been a lot more in the end, but the three points were vital today against a testy Reading side with one of the poorer referees in charge.
Having picked up their first win in four with the victory over Oldham in the cup replay on Tuesday, Everton's focus turns back to the Premier League where two straight defeats have put a huge dent in their Champions League aspirations.
With Tottenham and Arsenal facing off against each other at White Hart Lane on Sunday and Chelsea struggling for consistency amid managerial unrest concerning Rafael Benitez, this weekend's visit to Goodison by Reading could present an opportunity for the Blues to revive those fading top-four hopes.
At the very least, a win in what is the first of four consecutive home games would press their claims for fifth place and guaranteed Europa League qualification.
Marouane Fellaini aside, the starting XI that started the cup replay was probably David Moyes's strongest team and the Belgian could be fit to return this weekend after being rested against the Latics as a precaution. If he does play, the Belgian would likely be a straight swap for Phil Neville.
Victor Anichebe remains doubtful with the groin strain he suffered in the first game against Oldham two weeks ago, while Tim Howard will be assessed after taking a battering in the closing stages in the replay against the League One side.
In addition to the possibility of closing the gap on teams above them, revenge and redemption for the 2-1 defeat at the Madjeski Stadium in November should be a driver for Everton. In a reversal almost as ugly as the one at Norwich last Saturday, the Blues threw away a 1-0 lead in that game and lost what was, at the time, only their second defeat of the campaign.
Reading, meanwhile, are in the middle of a fight for their lives in the relegation zone and they've shown some fight in recent weeks, picking up three points at Newcastle and holding Chelsea to a 2-2 draw in January. Their last game was a 3-0 drubbing at home by Wigan and Moyes will know that this is a game Everton should win.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2012-13 Reports Index|
|Kabe (19' Robson-Kanu)|
|Hunt (74' Blackman)|
|Le Fondre :2'|
|Subs not used|
|9||West Bromwich Albion||40|
|12||West Ham United||33|
|20||Queens Park Rangers||20|