Fortune eventually favoured the brave at Craven Cottage as Everton snatched two late goals to secure a dramatic victory over Fulham, only their second on this ground since the inception of the Premier League.
Bobby Zamora was still wondering how he'd blazed wide of a gaping goal at one end when Louis Saha chested forward Royston Drenthe's knock-on, accelerated past and then held off the challenge of his marker and bounced what proved to be the winning goal off the inside of the post in the 90th minute. Jack Rodwell added a third in stoppage time to put the icing on the cake and arrest the Blues' losing streak at three matches with a vital win.
It provided a measure of vindication for David Moyes who finally bowed to pressure and poor results by mixing up his starting line up, dropping Tim Cahill and Saha to the bench and starting both Drenthe and Apostolos, the duo that had combined so well for the consolation goal at Chelsea last weekend and who had been pressing for their full debuts with decent cameos in prior appearances off the bench.
Indeed, that vindication arrived after just two minutes and 16 seconds when Drenthe smashed home the opening goal with a stunning strike that Mark Schwarzer in the Fulham goal couldn't prevent from nestling in the corner of the goal. Starting out on the right flank, the Dutch winger picked up the loose ball after Jack Rodwell had capitalised on an error by Danny Murphy and played a one-two with Vellios and flashed his unstoppable left-footer home from 25 yards.
For the first quarter of an hour, Everton were in almost compete control of proceedings and the home side, with just one victory from their first eight games (their 6-0 drubbing of QPR standing out like a sore thumb among four draws and four defeats), looked nervy and vulnerable to a quick second. That might have come from Marouane Fellaini but Brede Hangeland nudged him enough to force him behind the ball and the Belgian could only direct a free header back across goal where Sylvain Distin's shot was deflected behind.
Four minutes later, Murphy felled the effevescent Drenthe and when Leighton Baines centred it at the second attempt, Rodwell steered an unchallenged header of his own past the far post. Drenthe then had an opportunity for an encore with an almost identical effort to his opening goal but this time a deflection guided the ball towards the goalkeeper and Schwarzer gathered.
Despite ploughing the lonely furrow as the sole striker, Vellios was acquitting himself fairly well with the simple stuff — neat layoffs and bringing teammates into the game — but took a while to get to grips with the number of long balls being fired his way from the back. As would be a constant problem for the Blues all game, there was very little support for the Blue jersey in possession in forward areas so the Greek struggled to make his mark, especially when his chance for glory arrived in a gilt-edged platter in the 21st minute.
Patient play down the right side ended with Drenthe flicking the ball to Tony Hibbert on the touchline with the outside of this boot and the fullback whipped in a perfect cross the pick out Vellios completely free — and probably marginally offside — in the centre but he connected with the top of his head and the ball flew over the crossbar.
It was a big let-off for Martin Jol's team and they responded accordingly, Murphy rattling Everton nerves and the woodwork with a 24th-minute piledriver that cannoned off Tim Howard's right post, caught the 'keeper on the rebound but thankfully ran away for a corner on the far side.
A minute later, Clint Dempsey was allowed to cut across the 18-yard line and unload a deflected shot that Howard saved low before the American goalkeeper tipped Hangeland's header over the bar from John Arne Riise's long throw. And Howard again had to foil his international teammate, Dempsey, eight minutes before the break when the forward latched onto Zamora's clever ball over the top but the 'keeper was off his line quickly and bravely stood his ground to gather the ball.
Not to be deterred, Dempsey tried an bending shot looking for the top corner but it flew inches wide of the post sending the home side in a goal down at half time.
For the first half hour of the second half, it felt as though the writing was on the wall for Everton and that the lead that Vellios could have doubled midway through the first half would eventually be wiped out if Fulham were allowed to dictate things as they had started to in the latter part of the first period.
Certainly the Blues had lost some of their cohesion and forward momentum. Presumably to protect Hibbert, who found himself worryingly out of position on a few occasions, Drenthe had switched flanks after about halfway through the first half and he almost immediately became less influential in the match. Though he started the second half back on the right side, Jol had by then identified him as Moyes's chief threat going forward and for long periods after the interval they managed to choke him off and had, by the midway point of the second period, restricted the Blues to just one daisy-cutter from Rodwell than slid a yard wide.
To be fair, though they'd had the upper hand, Fulham weren't exactly causing Howard many problems and it took a moment of unexpected magic from substitute Bryan Ruiz to shatter the Blues' clean sheet. The substitute had come on with 24 minutes left on the clock and, after a surging run by ex-Blue Andy Johnson and a pass on by Demspey, he needed a little over two minutes on the field and some space left by Hibbert who was tucked too far inside to despatch an audacious chip over the 'keeper and into the net behind him.
That could have given Fulham all the impetus they needed to take full control and go on to win the game but, following a double substitution of the ineffectual Leon Osman and lacklustre Phil Neville for Seamus Coleman and Tim Cahill — Saha had replaced Vellios earlier — Everton gradually started to gain a foothold back in proceedings.
Baines drove a direct free kick a yard over after Drenthe had again been tripped near the Fulham area before Hangeland was somehow allowed to wrestle Cahill to the floor by his face without incurring any penalty a few minutes later.
Still, though Everton were trying to up the tempo, the story of their afternoon was a disappointing lack of numbers and options in support of the man on the ball. All four of Drenthe, Fellaini, Coleman and Rodwell found themselves at times with no man available and ended up conceding possession but in the 79th minute things came together nicely with a ball to Saha's feet in the box where quick reactions saw the Frenchman nip ahead of his marker to a loose ball that had bounced off a Fulham defender's head but Schwarzer got just enough on his left-footed shot to push it to the side where it was hacked away by a defender.
The Blues escaped a scare in the 81st minute when Ruiz was denied by Howard at point-blank range and looked to be dead buried with a minute to go of the regulation 90 when Johnson dispossessed the fatigued Fellaini near the halfway line, burst forward down the right channel and slipped the ball into the space behind Distin to Zamora. The striker did all the hard work by committing Howard and jinking inside him, leaving just Hibbert's despairing lunge and Phil Jagielka on the line to beat. Opting for power over placement, Zamora clipped the wrong side of the woodwork before putting his head in his hands in complete disbelief.
From the resulting goalkick, it was another route-one move that eventually led to Saha punishing Zamora for his profligacy at the other end. Hangeland beat Cahill in the aerial challenge but could only head backwards where Drenthe beat Baird to the ball and nodded it into the path of Saha who did the rest to send the traveling support into rapture behind the goal.
To rub salt into the wound, Baird was booked for scything Saha down on the left touchline and when Hangleland could only head Drenthe's free kick straight to Rodwell, the midfielder returned it with interest with a sweetly-struck shot from 18 yards that bounced through the partially unsighted Schwarzer's hands to round off a priceless win.
Increasingly demoralised following consecutive defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, with many supporters starting to question Moyes's conservative tactics, and the Blues starting this match in 17th place in the table, this was a huge result and reward for a more positive team selection.
Vellios will feel like he wasn't able to stake his claim for a regular starting berth just yet as he battled as the lone striker and there was, unfortunately, no role for Ross Barkley while in a position the youngster could easily fill, Osman labored through another unproductive display. But Drenthe, despite not being consistent for the full 90 minutes, added everything those fans clamouring for hi m to start throught he would: pace, unpredictability and self-belief, all of which contributed to his magnificent third-minute strike.
As tonics go ahead of another meeting with Chelsea, this time in the League Cup in midweek, and then the visit of Manchester United next weekend, this will hopefully prove to be the elixir of new life for Everton. Granted, there were parts of this game where the Blues lost their way and they'll need to offer more support in attack if they are to profit against the better teams, but this is a terrific first step to getting back on an even keel and maintaining confidence levels among the players.
Player Ratings: Howard 7, Hibbert 7, Jagielka 6, Distin 7, Baines 7, Neville 6 (Cahill 7), Osman 6 (Coleman 6), Rodwell 7, Fellaini 7, Drenthe 8*, Vellios 6 (Saha 7)
David Moyes finally broke faith with his out-of-form favourites Cahill, Coleman and Saha, who were dropped to he bench for the visit to Fulham, with Neville restored to the Captaincy, and Drenthe and Vellios both starting.
Everton: Howard, Hibbert, Baines, Jagielka, Distin, Drenthe, Neville, Osman, Fellaini, Rodwell, Vellios Subs: Mucha, Heitinga, Bilayletdinov, Stracqualursi, Saha, Coleman, Cahill.
And as if to underline the final wisdom of the reluctant manager, Drenthe fired in a fabulous goal inside just the third minute of the game, after Murphy was caught in possession and Everton surged forward, the powerful winger drove a fearsome left-foot curler just inside the post off a loose ball laid back by Rodwell.
Rodwell had a glorious chance for a second after 10 minutes, his header from a baines cross going just wide as Fulham rocked on their heels, Everton totally dominating. drenthe was very lively and tried his luck again, cutting in and firing on Schwarzer who saved thanks to a deflection.
Another good move was worthy of a goal with a great cross from Baines for Vellios to finish but he headed over when he really should have buried it.
But Fulham were showing signs of recovering finally from the early shock, Murphy beating Howard, hitting the post with a stinging shot that thnn bounced off Howard's body and out. Howard than had to be alert to tip over a header from Hangeland off a long throw. Then ref Probert penalized Neville for a sliding tackle that missed Dembele completely but the wall did it's job.
By the break, Everton were living a little dangerously, letting Fulham penetrate a little too easily, and when Rodwell did get hold of the ball and advanced with purpose from his own half, he had no support from his fellow Blues and ended up in a cul-de-sac.
Distin went in the ref's little book fro taking out Johnson, with Vellios, who had struggled to have much impact in the lone striker role, was withdrawn after just 5 mins of the second half, for Saha to come on. Johnson was booked soon after for a foul on Jagielka.
There was lots of very sloppy football from both sides as neither seemed able to get a grip. It was the hour-mark before Rodwell had a half-hearted poke that was drilled wide. Ruiz came on for Captain Danny Murphy. And the change did the trick for Fulham, who punished a lack-lustre second-half Everton performance when Ruiz very cleverly clipped the ball into the back of the goal over a stunned Tim Howard.
Everton had relied a little too much on the early goal and now had to step it up if they were to recover the lead. They won a handsome free-kick when Sidwell took out Drenthe and earned a booking. From an excellent position, Baines curled it over as David Moyes pondered the puzzle and finally Coleman and Cahill replaced Neville and the particularly dreadful Osman. So... back to the tried and trusted to rescue the game with just 15 minutes left.
Everton had a better spell, Cahill being dragged down by Hangeland for a clear penalty but nothing given. Then Louis Saha turned and fired but was denied by Schwarzer as Hangeland again took him out.
At the other end Ruiz came so close to a winning goal when fulham finally got something beyond the Everton back line but Howard just managed to keep it out. As the minutes ticked away, both sides decided they could win the game, and it looked like it would be Fulham when Zamora burst forward off a superb ball from Johnson, and incredibly fired round an almost open goal as Howard.
And at the other end, it was Saha who powered the ball home with an exquistie piece of control and determination. Then, an excellent finish by Rodwell underlined the severity of Zamora's horrendous miss, and gave Everton a very nice win by a wonderful two-goal margin.
Everton are back in West London just a week after their limp showing at Stamford Bridge for a game against Fulham that is sandwiched between two games against Chelsea. With the Cottagers involved in the Europa League on Thursday, this is the Blues' first Sunday fixture of the season but it's probably fair to say that the traveling fans will approach it with a fair degree of trepidation.
Not so much because Fulham pose an especially significant threat — Martin Jol's side have won only once in eight games, that a 6-0 win in their last home game — but because morale and self-belief seems to be ebbing further away with each game. Granted, much of that is due to the combination of the calibre of recent opposition and refereeing injustice in the Merseyside derby, but David Moyes's conservative approach is visibly stunting his team's attacking threat and there is every chance that the manager will persist with the same formation and personnel as against Chelsea last weekend.
That would mean Royston Drenthe and Apostolos Vellios watching on from the bench again when the game kicks off when both have done more than enough to warrant more playing time. Certainly Drenthe could be handed his first Premier League start against comparatively weaker opposition to inject some pace and unpredictability but it would take a bold man to put any money on him starting, particularly in an away match.
And therein lies the problem; Moyes just seems to have lost his courage and any sense of adventure that he had. His unwillingness to rotate out some of his trusted regulars beyond the recent demotion to the bench of Phil Neville means that the likes of Tim Cahill and Leon Osman are automatic starters despite being two of the more likely players to make way for a fresher line-up and formation.
Victor Anichebe remains the only injury absentee, new free-agent acquisition James McFadden is not included in the squad due to a lack of fitness — Moyes admitted in his pre-match press conference that the returning midfielder is some way short of being ready as he feels his way back from a serious knee injury — and Ross Barkley faces the prospect of another week omitted from the squad if his manager's comments in the press are any indication.
Despite only winning once at Craven Cottage so far in the Premier League, the Blues have done fairly well on this ground at times in recent seasons but have struggled to put a consistent performance together for 90 minutes. A strong first 45 minutes followed by a disappointing second seems to have become the norm, with the exception, of course, of that 2-0 win at the end of the 2007-08 season.
How the manager and players respond to three straight defeats will provide an indication of where the team is heading in the short term. The first order of business will be to shore up the defence where Phil Jagielka's patch of poor form seems to be worsening while John Heitinga watches on from the bench.
The second will, of course, be creating chances at the other end, something Everton have struggled to do consistently so far this campaign. So, plenty to prove...
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2011-12 Reports Index|
|When Skies Are Grey||Report|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Other media reports|
|4 the Game||Report|
|Grygera (90' Hughes)|
|Murphy (64' Ruiz)|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Aston Villa||1-2||West Brom|
|Man Utd||1-6||Man CIty|