Joleon Lescott’s goal ensured the only fire burning brightly around Goodison Park this week was Everton’s European dream as they recorded a valuable three points today against Manchester City.
It was a hotly-anticipated affair and the Toffees went into it not only handicapped by the loss of African stars such as Yakubu and Joseph Yobo, but compounded by the loss of striker Andy Johnson, who picked up a knock in training. City, meanwhile, were looking to further improve their dismal away form by building on their win at Newcastle 10 days ago. Sven Goran-Eriksson was looking for his new loan signing, Nery Alberto Castillo to work in tandem with Darius Vassell, while Stephen Ireland sat it out as Elano switched to the right-hand side of midfield.
There wasn’t, and still isn’t, much separating these two sides in the table and it showed in the first 15 minutes as the players struggled to spark the game into life. Bearing in mind the players absent, goals for Everton would most likely originate from the likes of Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill, while the Citizens generally rely on midfielders for that too, but the men the 38,474 crowd were looking to light up this encounter found it difficult to assert themselves in the opening quarter of an hour.
Elano toiled away early on just to find some space, winning a free-kick theatrically on 10 minutes as Cahill’s attention was deemed too close by referee Mark Halsey. Indeed, Cahill was booked soon after for a challenge on Dietmar Hamann. The visitors regularly poured the likes of Vedran Corluka, Richard Dunne and Micah Richards forward for set-pieces in much the way that the hosts employ Lescott, but the Brazilian’s delivery evaded all of them and Tim Howard was untroubled in goal.
Following that insipid opening, Everton asserted themselves on the game and caused City a few problems. Nedum Onuoha had to be alert to block Lescott’s shot, and the resulting ball was pumped back into the box but Nigerian striker Victor Anichebe, deemed too inexperienced for the African Nations Cup by coach Berti Vogts, could only manage to direct his header over.
Within minutes it was clear that there were several interesting themes to the game, most notably the battle between Anichebe and Richards and Portuguese full-back Nuno Valente’s surging runs up the left-flank. Lee Carsley tried to work City’s promising custodian, Joe Hart, with an effort from 30-yards, but saw his shot sail harmlessly wide of the target.
Hart was called into action, but not before some very rare slick passing from his team-mates led to Castillo frantically gesturing for a penalty after the ball appeared to strike Valente’s arm just inside the area. Halsey didn’t relent to the Mexican’s claim.
The game resumed its by now normal pattern, and Everton created a glorious opportunity that they couldn’t capitalise on. Anichebe expertly shielded the ball from the visiting centre-halves before laying the ball back to Arteta, in space on the penalty spot. The talismanic Spaniard thought he’d given his side the advantage, but his well struck left-footed shot was brilliantly saved by Hart. The danger wasn’t over for City, though, as the ball broke to Cahill with the goal gaping. The Australian, usually so prolific in these situations, could only fire the ball narrowly over the empty net on his weaker side.
Just after Valente’s cross-cum-shot went just wide, the inevitable occurred. Arteta received the ball back from his own corner, and City’s usually obstinate back-line malfunctioned on two occasions; firstly, the midfielder was given far too much space to arrow a cross into the box while secondly, Richards and Dunne allowed Lescott to steal in between them and give the hosts a deserved 1-0 lead on the half-hour mark.
The onus was now on the guests to awaken from their slumber, and while they briefly threatened for the next 10 minutes, their passing and general cohesion was never going to be enough to break down David Moyes’s well-drilled outfit.
Minutes after Lescott’s striker, Elano, after disputing with Halsey the location of his free-kick, despatched a seemingly goal-bound effort from well outside the box but it struck the wall and went out for a corner. Petrov’s resulting delivery was excellent but again, nobody in a white shirt could get on the end of it. It seemed the only route by which City could equalise — certainly in open play Vassell and the ‘supporting’ Castillo, in particular on a different wavelength to his team-mates, were as effective as Johnson and Yakubu.
Following Everton skipper Phil Neville’s attempt on 37 minutes, which didn’t trouble Hart too much, the visitors did carve a decent opportunity to test Howard but again they failed to: Elano weaved in and out of the home defence before being felled, Halsey waved play on and the ball broke to Martin Petrov. City’s influential Bulgarian was well shackled by the indefatigable Tony Hibbert all afternoon and he wanted too long on this occasion to get his shot off, Hibbert’s interception broke to Corluka and the Croat fired wastefully over the bar. Other events of note before the interval were Hamann unfairly going into the book for a tackle on Valente and Corluka being very lucky to avoid it for a challenge on Carsley before the teams went in with the score at 1-0.
Javier Garrido and Rolando Bianchi warming up in the centre-circle probably showed more enthusiasm and camaraderie than their team-mates did in the first period, but City owner Thaksin Shinawatra didn’t look too crestfallen as he made his descent to his second-half vantage point.
It was a different story after the break, with Everton largely playing a reactive counter-attacking game as opposed to a pro-active attacking one, but Howard in goal was not troubled in the first-half and it was a pattern which, although City improved considerably after the break, would continue for the entirety of the match.
Both teams emerged unchanged, and Eriksson clearly stressed a need for more urgency from the away team. Petrov produced a great run infield before laying the ball wide to Onuoha but, as happened on a wealth of occasions from that point on, the cross into the box was woeful. It wasn’t long before City made tactical changes: Hamann was replaced by Gelson Fernandes while the disappointing Castillo was substituted for the popular Rolando Bianchi. That wasn’t the only change: Eriksson tried to be flexible in changing the positions of Richards and Onuoha, leaving the former free to maraud up the right-wing.
For all of the City manager’s flexibility in this respect, it may have been a refusal to put more up front which meant his team wouldn’t score against a well-organised Everton team in a month of Sundays: Bianchi was frustrated by the service full-stop, compounded by the fact he was foraging alone in attack. On the hour, however, the Goodison crowd were getting anxious as they allowed their opponents so much possession, and it wasn’t long before Moyes replaced James McFadden, subject of much speculation this week, with his younger namesake, Vaughan.
Stephen Ireland came on for Vassell after Carsley was lucky to escape with a booking for a two-footed challenge on Corluka and Hart had to be on guard to clear through-balls twice, but the game lost its edge a little. So much so, in fact, that the linesman, in a classic MOTD2 ‘too good, too bad’ moment, required his flag to be replaced and this was the best action of the second period.
Cahill had two chances to wrap up the points for Everton, both following exceptional, pinpoint deliveries from Arteta, but he could only head wide each time. Petrov came into the game much more for City, but one of his crosses was symptomatic of his team’s performance offensively, hitting Hibbert before striking the Bulgarian and going out for a goal-kick. Moyes wasn’t taking any chances though, perhaps remembering Micah Richards’ 95th minute equaliser in this fixture last season, and brought on Leighton Baines for the tireless Anichebe.
With time fading to gain a precious point, City rallied in stoppage-time, to no avail. Petrov saw a shot very well held onto by Howard, while Bianchi flicked a ball from Fernandes into the grateful arms of the American recipient. Hence, the match finished 1-0 to the hosts, who will again look to take points from their European rivals when they meet again soon at the City of Manchester Stadium.