There is no question that Everton's approach to games against the so-called Sky Four — a term made anachronistic now by the "overnight" transformation at Manchester City and the rise as a consistent force of Tottenham Hotspur — and their consequent record against them under David Moyes has been a very sore point among supporters for much of the Scotsman's tenure at Goodison Park.
While it's still true, almost 10 years after he succeeded Walter Smith, that no Everton side has won in the Premier League on any of the home grounds of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool, Moyes's teams are faring a lot better against the top flight's current elite at Goodison Park. Today, the Blues registered their second successive home win over top-four opposition and their third home League win in a row over Chelsea.
A Moyes team has played better football (though not much this season) and created more chances but the determined and unfailing defensive commitment and never-say-die spirit that has been his team's hallmark were there again in spades and they underpinned this hard-fought but thoroughly deserved victory.
That it began with a wonderfully-taken goal by Steven Pienaar on his triumphant return to Merseyside and was sealed by a first League goal for workaholic Denis Stracqualursi made it all the more enjoyable for Blues fans who can now again dare to look at the narrowing gap between their club and those heading the chase for Europe above them.
The teams had barely begun to size each other up before Everton, who were unable to hand a debut to Nikica Jelavic when the Croatian was ruled out with a stomach muscle strain, finally made good on the positive start they make almost every time they take the field these days. On countless occasions they have failed to press home their early superiority but Pienaar stepped in to underscore just how much the Blues have missed him since he left for Spurs last January.
The South African smartly intercepted Branislav Ivanovic's attempted clearance with a header to Tim Cahill and then picked up the ricochet off Frank Lampard when the Australian's first touch got away from him. With his momentum taking him deep in the Chelsea area, he took the ball down on his chest and lashed it into the roof of Petr Cech's net. Five minutes gone, 1-0 Everton.
Having seen his side held at Swansea on their last road trip and then throw away a 3-0 lead at home to Manchester United last weekend, Andre Villas-Boas will have been coming under increasing pressure from his paymaster at Stamford Bridge. And his cause was not helped by Cech who despatched a routine clearance straight at Landon Donovan but the American fired a left-footed shot straight at the goalkeeper from 20-odd yards.
The Londoners regained their composure mid-way through the first half, though, and assumed control for a disconcertingly long spell, Tim Howard almost ending a spell of disarray in the Everton defence in the 20th minute with a poor punch but got away with it as the visitors spurned the opportunity.
Two identical Chelsea attacks down their right then threatened to carve the home side open, Juan Mata delivering dangerous crosses on both occasions but, thankfully, Daniel Sturridge's shot off the first deflected narrowly over the bar off Phil Neville and Lampard planted an unchallenged left-footer wide when he really should have hit the target.
Having weathered that spell, though, it was Everton who finished the first half as the more likely side to add to the scoresheet. A lovely move between Pienaar and Leighton Baines saw the latter pick up the former's backheel inside the area but he eschewed the shot and chose to play in Cahill in an offside position instead. Stracqualursi then intercepted Ashley's Cole's dubious pass across his own penalty area but the Argentine's attempted curler around Cech was weak and easily caught.
For the first 25 minutes, the second half was a surprisingly uneventul affair, with neither side really able to create anything. Howard's relative inactivity in the Park End goal suited Everton, of course, and Villas-Boas' frustration at his side's lack of penetration was no doubt building. Certainly impatience got the better of Fernando Torres who, booed throughout with just a couple of tame headers to show for his efforts, found his way into the referee's notebook when he scythed Pienaar down just before the hour mark.
The Blues for their part, managed to carve open a couple of decent openings down the left flank behind the opposition defence but increasingly erratic refereeing by Mike Jones denied them twice in quick succession when he blew up for non-existent fouls by Cahill and Baines.
All of that paled into insignificance with 19 minutes to go, though, when Neville came out the victor in a crunching 50-50 tackle on Cole down the right touchline and Donovan raced away with the loose ball. He drifted inside before flicking the ball forward to Stracqualursi who ignored Pienaar to his left and swept a shot home off Cech's glove to double the score and effectively put the game to bed.
The expected Chelsea onslaught never really arrived and a terrific sprawling save to deny substitute Lukaku by Howard with eight minutes to go was about as close as the visitors came to making a game of it. That allowed the Blues to see out the finale in relative comfort, Moyes giving the superb Pienaar a rest in favour of Royston Drenthe and then bringing Tony Hibbert and Shane Duffy on late on in place of Darron Gibson and Stracqualursi.
It may not have been a spectacle of flowing attacking football — they had their moments though, most of them involving Pienaar — but this was a tremendous team performance in a similar vein to that which toppled City here 10 days ago. Almost to a man, there were towering performances all over the pitch: Pienaar was the embodiment of invention and movement — in addition to his goal, one delightful moment of silky ball control taking him past Bosingwa on the left flank stood out in particular; Cahill covered almost every blade of grass on the pitch and made two important blocks in his own penalty box in the first half; Fellaini was a rock in midfield; Stracqualursi's ceaseless effort was rewarded with another goal; and the defensive pairing of John Heitinga and Sylvain Distin coped with pretty much everything that was thrown at them.
Though Donovan had been curiously quiet in the first half, a victim perhaps of Neville's attacking shortcomings and the tendency to use the more effective Baines-Pienaar axis on the left, he noticeably moved up a few gears after half time, offering an outlet from defence with his pace and then laying on yet another assist for Stracqualursi's goal.
Only Gibson failed to reach the heights achieved by the majority of his teammates with a largely anonymous display that was let down by poor distribution and a general lack of presence alongside the far more effective Fellaini. It's early in his days at Everton, of course, but Moyes can ill-afford any passengers in such a crucial part of the pitch in the season run-in.
Above all, though, it was three crucial points against a talented team that they reduced to toothless — and the re-injection of confidence they will bring after a limp performance at Wigan last week — that mattered. The Blues are again on an upward trajectory and the win brings them to within nine points of sixth place. Still quite a gap, to be sure, but a run of victories, particularly against the teams above them, in the last 13 games could put them right into the mix for Europe come May.
Player Ratings: Howard 7, Neville 7, Heitinga 8, Distin 8, Baines 8, Gibson 6 (Hibbert -), Fellaini 8, Donovan 7, Pienaar 9* (Drenthe 6), Cahill 7, Stracqualursi 8 (Duffy -)
Everton play host to top-four opposition for the second home game in succession as Chelsea come to Goodison Park on the back of that thriller at Stamford Bridge last weekend against Manchester City that saw Andre Villas-Boas' men toss away a three-goal lead to draw 3-3.
With last weekend's limp display at Wigan almost visibly sucking a good deal of the post-City and post-transfer deadline day euphoria out of the Everton fanbase, the onus will be on the Blues to produce another stirring display to make good on the promise of an end-of-season run on the European places that was hinted at on 31st January.
Having inexplicably delayed Nikica Jelavic's debut until the hour mark while Phil Neville replaced the injured Tim Cahill at half time the DW Stadium, David Moyes will likely be under some pressure to start the Croatian against Chelsea... but the stubborn Glaswegian has always marched to his own drum and if he feels Denis Stracqualursi or, if Cahill misses out, Marouane Fellaini in an advanced role is the better way to go, then he'll no doubt do it regardless.
Cahill is expected to recover from the foot injury that he appeared to sustain against Manchester City 10 days ago and which obviously flared up again at Wigan but Jack Rodwell's inability to shake off his hamstring problem is starting to concern his manager.
The young England midfielder has been given five weeks to recover after suffering his latest setback against Bolton in early January and looked set to be available this weekend but he felt a reaction in training on Thursday and has undergone further scans.
Phil Jagielka, Seamus Coleman and Leon Osman remain sidelined meaning Moyes has a familiar squad from which to choose and could, if he were so inclined, name an unchanged line-up for what will be Landon Donovan's penultimate game for Everton before he again returns to LA Galaxy after the Blackpool cup tie.
As they showed against City and against Chelsea on the West Londoners' last two League visits to Goodison — they won here in the League Cup earlier this season — Everton have what it takes to produce a big performance and claim a big result. And with Steven Pienaar making his anticipated return to the Grand Old Lady and Jelavic in the ranks, they're better equipped now to deal pull off a win.
Having dropped points against a slew of lowly teams this season, Moyes's boys are going to have to do it the hard way by getting results against the big teams yet to visit Liverpool L4 between now and May, starting with victory this weekend.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2011-12 Reports Index|
|Gibson (Hibbert 89')|
|Pienaar (Drenthe 74')|
|Strcqualursi (Duffy 90'+3')|
|Subs not used|
|Cole (Bertrand 77')|
|Essien (Malouda 69)|
|Mata (Lukaku 77')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Aston Villa||0-1||Man City|
|14||West Bromwich Albion||29|
|16||Queens Park Rangers||21|
EL Group Draw: 29 Aug