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Venue: Goodison Park, Liverpool
Premier League
 Saturday 1 February 2014; 3:00pm
2 1
 Aston Villa
 Naismith (74')
 Mirallas (85')
Half Time: 0 - 0
Bacuna (34') 
Fixture 23
Referee: Robert Madley

Match Report

Depending on what happens between now and May, it may prove to have been a pivotal moment in Everton's season but there was no doubting its quality. Kevin Mirallas served up another slice of precision artistry from an 84th-minute free kick to turn on its head a contest that, for long stretches, had looked as though it was going to end in utter frustration.

Of course, frustration is a feeling that has dogged the Blues at times already this season – in most of the team's nine draws to date and the fruitless bombardment from a depleted position of Sunderland on Boxing Day – but , in the context the debacle at Anfield on Tuesday evening, the injury crisis afflicting the forward line and the lack of new arrivals before last night's transfer deadline, defeat today would likely have dealt a significant psychological blow. It would also have put a potentially crippling dent in the hopes of finishing in the top four.

Steven Naismith's equaliser 16 minutes from time therefore represented a vital shift in momentum for Everton – in terms of this match and, perhaps, the season as a whole. The substitute levelled the match with a confidently-taken goal and set the stage for Mirallas to put some gloss on what had been an otherwise difficult afternoon leading the line in the absence of Romelu Lukaku and Lacina Traore.

The Ivorian striker was paraded in front of the Goodison faithful before kick off but watched the game from the stands bundled up against the cold and the wet as he continues his recovery from a hamstring strain, leaving Mirallas as the obvious choice up front. The Belgian had been one of very few bright spots amid the misery across the Park on Tuesday but he quickly found himself locked down by Paul Lambert's supremely organised rearguard.

He wasn't the only one; despite a predictable dominance of possession, Everton found precious little room in which to work in the final third, although home debutant, Aiden McGeady, was able to engineer some very early on following a Leighton Baines free kick when he came inside Ryan Bertrand and curled an excellent shot off the face of the post. That chance was notable given how few would follow in what was a turgid first half from Everton's point of view.

While Lukaku has come in for criticism lately – his shortage of goals can be largely attributed to a lack of service but there is validity to concerns over his movement up front – his ability to pull defenders out of position was visibly missing today. That meant the likes of Mirallas and Ross Barkley kept running into a claret wall – when the former wasn't being thrwarted by the offside flag, that was – and a worrying paucity of chances.

Indeed, for the first hour, it was hard to see where an Everton goal was going to come from and what was already set up to be a diffcult afternoon took a turn for the even worse 11 minutes before half time. Barkley was barged off the ball in central midfield by Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke took advantage of the hole behind Baines by threading a pass to the overlapping Leandro Bacuna. He advanced on Tim Howard and slotted a shot between the American's legs to open the scoring with Villa's first meaningful attack.

The fact that the Dutch winger's goal would be Villa's only shot on target for the entire game told the story of the visitors' lack of attacking intent and they were forced back even more in the second half as their hosts steadily ratcheted up the pressure. All too often, though, Everton were found wanting for sufficient blue shirts in forward areas. Perhaps because of their inherently defensive nature or a desire to prevent being caught on the counter, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy remained deep, while Baines and Leon Osman were being throttled by Villa's tenacious defending on the left and Bertrand was making McGeady look decidedly ordinary on the other flank.

The two best half-chances fell Osman's way, the first when he nicked the ball off the toes of Ashley Westwood but dragged a left-foot shot across the face of goal with Mirallas ready to pounce had he knocked it square; the second when collected a nice pass from John Stones and turned neatly in the area but could only scuff a shot straight to Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.

Steven Pienaar had already made a difference to the tempo after coming on at the break but the change in shape when Stones came off with 20 minutes left and was replaced by Naismith proved to be the difference. And it was a lovely interchange with Steven Pienaar that carved Villa open for the equaliser – the Scot alive to the South African's first-time touch beyond his marker and he had time to look up and plant his finish past the on-rushing 'keeper with aplomb.

The Blues now had the platform to go and win a game that for so long had appeared to have annoying defeat or salvaged draw written all over it. And when Ciaran Clark went through Mirallas challenging for the ball 25 yards from the visitors' goal, the stage was set for the Belgian to produce his magic with a direct free kick. Baines stood over it with him to keep Guzan guessing but it was Mirallas who stepped up and curled a beautiful shot inside the American's right-hand post before racing away to celebrate with Martinez on the touchline.

Having broken the resistance of Lambert's side, Everton were unshackled now and a better header from Naismith would surely have made it 3-1 five minutes later as Pienaar picked him out with a pin-point cross from the left edge of the box. Unfortunately, he planted his effort straight into Guzan's arms.

At the other end, a long-range effort by Mark Albrighton flashed inches over Howard's crossbar via a deflection off Phil Jagielka but the points were going only one way by that point and that was onto Everton's tally for the season, which now stands at 45 – enough to lift them back into fifth place in the table.

It was a result that, once again, epitomises the character and never-say-die attitude that permeates this team, even when depleted by injuries. It was what earned a draw at Stoke on New Year's Day, drove them on at Anfield despite an insurmountable deficit and keeps them in touch with the top four when it looked as though that chase was going to be beyond them given the injuries ravaging key areas of the team.

Indeed, in that context, this was a vital win to achieve and was central to Martinez's gamble to perhaps not pay over the odds for players in the January window and wait for his walking wounded to return over the coming month. Sylvain Distin made a welcome return to the back four this afternoon and Seamus Coleman's place on the bench as an un-used sub means he is primed to start in the crucial game at Tottenham next Sunday.

Certainly, the Blues will need more incisiveness and imagination at White Hart Lane than they showed here but it's unlikely they will find their attack as suffocated by Spurs as they were today and that bodes well for Mirallas – and, perhaps, Gerard Deulofeu – if Traore is unable to play any part. A draw or defeat to Villa would have had many looking to the cup and next season for comfort but a victory next week and more results going their way elsewhere and things really could be on for the race down the stretch.

Lyndon Lloyd

Match Summary

Everton took on Aston Villa at Goodison Park after the disaster at Anfield, bringing out Lacina Traore ahead of the kick-off to be introduced to the somewhat subdued home crowd in freezing and windy conditions. Martinez gave Aiden McGeady, his Premier League debut.

An early free-kick wide left let Baines swing in a a good one and in the follow-up, McGeady smacked it against the far post, with an excellent opening gambit.

Baines was fouled again in a similar location, this time it was defended away despite a very good delivery. Everton continued to work the ball but were hitting something of a brick wall in midfield as the similar styles of each side promised a lively passing game but with the defences both on top.

Everton's first corner came on 23 mins but was not effective, although the follow-up saw some excellent passing and moving around the Villa area, but they could not get near enough to the Villa goal. Everton then created a somewhat faster attack but McGeady's shot was poor.

Villa got forward and swung in a great cross that was headed away from the danger area by Jagielka but there was precious little goalmouth action, as another Everton attack saw Osman bizarrely pass back to no-one on the half-way line. Osman was then meat in the sandwich on a hospital ball from Baines, who was remarkably getting caught offside by the disciplined high line Villa were playing at the back.

Villa got a turnaround unfairly off Barkley in the middle, Benteke strong, feeding Bacuna in plenty of space, he drove the ball very easily through Howard to give the visitors a shock lead against the run of play after 34 mins. Everton got forward well in response as the game finally threatened to come to life but and acrobatic Mirallas attempt was blocked by close Villa marking.

Everton kept pushing and pressing, dominating possession in midfield, but the quality and invention was lacking, with no answer to the solid backline Villa defence that was stalling each Blues attack, with Martinez bereft of options on the bench to change the seemingly inevitable.

Martinez did make a change at the break, but more likely enforced, with Barkley going off early as he continues to recover from a fractured metatarsal; Pienaar replaced as Eveton started the second half in similar vein, unable to get past the Villa backline who played the offside trap to perfection.

Better was to come form Mirallas who finally got ahead but no-one showed for his low centre. McCarthy then drove into the area but again the Villa defence was in quickly to snuff out the danger. A good cross from Osman was just too high for Mirallas as Everton tried to raise the tempo and force an equalizer. Osman did run through but scuffed his shot horribly off a defender.

A stream of Everton corners but they were not really executed effectively, the third a shocking short corner played back to Baines called offside... although he did not actually play the ball! Stones did well to feed the ball in to Osman who turned well but scuffed the ball horribly again with those 'clever feet'.

Some more great pressure and more corners, Pienaar finally getting a sight of goal and hitting it cleanly but straight at Guzan. Later, a great free-kick swung in by Baines, but it came off Benteke's face, just wide.... the ensuing corner again poor as Baines tried to vary the pattern, with Naismith coming on to replace Stones.

Everton seemed to be seeing an inch more space and it was some wonderful neat play, a great ball clipped forward by Pienaar and Naismith poaching the goal superbly to level the score finally after immense Everton pressure and determination,

Finally, Everton had something to show for their Herculean efforts, spoiled by a horribly overhit corner from Mirallas. Tiredness seemed to creep in as the relief of avoiding defeat seemed to see the intensity drop a little.... but it did not need too much effort for the go-ahead goal from Mirallas, won won a free-kick that he and Baines lined up tovtake. It was absolutely perfectly executed by Mirallas from a very long way out, curled perfectly over the wall, Guzan watching it all the way, past his flailing arm and inside the post, hitting the side netting. Just superb stuff to finally reward a very large Goodison Park crowd with something to really cheer about, and just 5 minutes left of the game.

Hibbert replaced McGeady as Everton kept pushing up, Naismith with a wonderful chance to plant a header either side of Guzan but sending it straight at the very fortunate Villa keeper. Albrighton almost got something at the other end with a shot defected just over Howard's bar but Everton saw out a tremendous comeback victory in the end.

Under extremely difficult circumstances, with a massive and extremely debilitating injury list to a whole team of players. on the back of a massively deflating derby defeat earlier in the week, Everton pulled out a massive, massive win in front of a massive Goodison crowd.

Michael Kenrick


Match Preview

Everton are back on home turf after three successive away games that yielded a handsome win in the FA Cup Fourth Round but just one Premier League point and a cold reality check at Anfield that has left them four points adrift of the Champions League places.

The Merseyside derby defeat was the Blues' third away League match without a win and, combined with the Boxing Day disaster against Sunderland at Goodison Park, that sequence has seen a good deal of the heady optimism washing through the fanbase to evaporate.

Though there were glaring tactical issues at play against Liverpool on Tuesday night that compounded the gulf in resources available to the two clubs, the blame for Everton's recent patchy form arguably rests on a mounting injury crisis combined with physical and mental fatigue.

Though transfer deadline day always offers hope of much-needed reinforcements, Roberto Martinez's rhetoric hasn't offered much hope that any major moves are afoot to add to a squad whose lack of depth again looks likely to scupper a bid to finish in the top four. Any late arrival would be ineligible to face Villa this weekend, anyway, but there is no question that it would give the whole place a lift.

Thanks to that list of significant injury absentees, the manager has few options at the back and up front for this one, though particularly where defence is concerned, Tuesday will have given him food for thought.

The unfit pairing of Phil Jagielka and Antolin Alcaraz was ruthlessly exploited by Brendan Rodgers and it's fair to say that against Villa, a team that also likes to play on the counter-attack, Martinez will be asking for more trouble if he deploys the same partnership of, at the least, the same high defensive line.

In hindsight, the experience offered by Tony Hibbert might have been a better option at Anfield than John Stones and he may opt for the veteran this time in the continued absence of Seamus Coleman who remains sidelined with a hamstring injury.

With Sylvain Distin also out, he could also use Stones alongside Jagielka in the centre, as he has done in recent matches, which would mean Hibbert starting by default.

In midfield, Martinez does have some choices, though, including playing Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar either side of the Barry-McCarthy axis and pushing Ross Barkley up behind Kevin Mirallas, or handing Steven Naismith the honour of partnering the Belgian and choosing between Osman and Pienaar on the left.

New loan signing, Lacina Traore, who was unveiled to the press yesterday, could fit enough to play some role, but the feeling is that he could still be about 10 days away.

Villa will travel in good spirits after their stirring Birmingham derby victory over West Brom on Wednesday evening but they will probably be without their chief speed merchant, Gaby Agbonlahor. Christian Benteke has rediscovered some goalscoring form, though, and he will likely by Paul Lambert's biggest threat.

With the Champions League charge suffering a jarring setback on Tuesday, Everton simply have to get back to winning ways with a win over Villa and set the stage for a potentially vital clash at White Hart Lane on Sunday week when Gerard Deulofeu is line to return.

Lyndon Lloyd

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EVERTON (4-5-1)
  Stones (Naismith 70')
  McGeady (Hibbert '87)
  Barkley (Pienaar 46')
  Subs not used
  Deulofeu (injured)
  Gibson (injured)
  Kone (injured)
  Lukaku (injured)
  Oviedo (injured)
  Traore (injured)
  Duffy (loan)
  Kennedy (loan)
  Vlaar (Albrighton 80')
  Weimann (Tonev 87')
  Holt (El Ahmadi 61')
  Subs not used

Premier League Scores
Cardiff 2 - 1 Norwich
Everton 2 - 1 Aston Villa
Fulham 0 - 3 So'hampton
Hull City 1 - 1 Tottenham
Newcastle 0 - 3 Sunderland
Stoke City 2 - 1 Man United
West Ham 2 - 0 Swansea
Arsenal 2 - 0 C Palace
West Brom 1 - 1 Liverpool
Man City 0 - 1 Chelsea

Team Pts
1 Arsenal 55
2 Manchester City 53
3 Chelsea 53
4 Liverpool 47
5 Everton 45
6 Tottenham Hotspur 44
7 Manchester United 40
8 Newcastle United 37
9 Southampton 35
10 Aston Villa 27
11 Stoke City 25
12 Swansea City 24
13 Hull City 24
14 Sunderland 24
15 Norwich City 24
16 West Bromwich Albion 23
17 Crystal Palace 23
18 West Ham United 22
19 Cardiff City 21
20 Fulham 19

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