Saturday’s Premier League clash at Goodison Park was supposed to be Everton’s opportunity to rack up a cricket score against the painfully out-of-form Aston Villa and propel themselves into the much coveted fourth place in the league table.
Well, there were goals galore alright, just not all going in at one end. And Everton’s big day in the spotlight nearly ended in tears as Paul Lambert’s Villa produced a performance of grit and pride so blatantly missing from their season to date and in particular over recent weeks.
From just the second minute, Villa striker Christian Benteke isolated himself against the weak link in the Everton back four, Johnny Heitinga.
Heitinga, who has never been blessed with a burst of pace was rolled far too easy on the edge of his own box in just the second minute. The Dutch defender, who’s turning circle is similar to that of the QE II, couldn’t recover and the Belgian forward slotted the ball expertly past Tim Howard.
A shock to the system for David Moyes team for sure, but could Villa really keep sticking it to Everton for 90 minutes? So often this campaign Lambert has had to endure tame surrender week in and week out and no one of a claret and blue persuasion could have been to blame for expecting something similar today.
Once they had got over the initial setback, the Toffees poured forward and were subsequently rewarded when Victor Anichebe bullied Ron Vlaar in the Villa penalty area to fire past Brad Guzan.
Anichebe is having his best season in the famous royal blue jersey and has recently dislodged the misfiring Nikica Jelavic from the starting line-up. The home team’s attack had already been boosted by the return of Kevin Mirallas following a recurrence of a hamstring problem in last week’s cup game at Bolton.
When the Belgian winger plays, Everton’s options increase dramatically and he gives them a double pronged attack, taking the pressure off the excellent Baines/Pienaar combination to come up trumps every week.
Although the Blues pulled themselves level it was the visitors who stunned the home supporters by edging ahead again just three minutes later, this time through Gabby Agbonlahor, a player who has been a pest to Everton down the seasons since his first game against them seven years ago.
Once again it was Heitinga who was caught out as Agbonlahor nipped in unmarked to head home Villa’s second and give them a precious half time lead. This slackness at the back has already cost Moyes dearly this season as his side have gifted far too many goals to the opposition to relinquish valuable points from commanding positions.
After the interval, and no doubt following a dressing-down from irate Scotsman Moyes, the hosts took the game to Villa and pounded away trying to force an equaliser and perhaps even push for all three points. Everton, who have played with a mix of flair and power all season were certainly flexing the muscular side of their approach as they tried to batter the young Villa defence into submission.
However, what we witnessed was perhaps a turning point for Paul Lambert’s inexperienced side. The courage and determination not to roll over and die was in total evidence and the frustration within the home team must have been beginning to brew.
With half an hour to go, and in the face of constant Everton pressure, instead of folding, Villa struck for a third, and what should have been a decisive time. Benteke headed home with Heitinga yet again conspicuous by his absence.
Last season’s Everton Player of the Year, Heitinga has struggled to earn a regular place in the starting XI on Merseyside recently and his form at present is worrying, having dropped a clanger in their last game against West Brom which had threatened to lose yet another winning lead.
Moyes must be desperate for either Tony Hibbert or Seamus Coleman to make a swift return from injury so Phil Jagielka can move back to centre half with Sylvain Distin. The other option he has is to move captain Phil Neville into the right back slot and leave the Dutchman on the bench.
At 1-3 down, past Everton teams would have just wilted, but this group of players has a never-say-die mentality instilled into them by the manager. And even when they were two goals in arrears, the amount of possession and pressure they were exerting on the brave Midlanders meant that a comeback was never off the agenda, and so it proved.
Marouane Fellaini, who many would not have expected to still be at Goodison after the recently closed transfer window, thrust himself onto centre stage on 68 minutes, to fire the Toffees back into the contest after good work down the left hand side.
Cue the siege to the Villa goal and the credit must go to the away team for their courage in the face of the onslaught from Everton. They threw their bodies in the way of everything that came into the danger areas and tackled anything and everything that moved in blue.
But, with a precious and unexpected victory in sight, it was the giant afro of Fellaini that came to prominence in the Villa box to nod home a deserved but heartbreaking injury-time equaliser.
So after six goals and the points shared, both managers and sets of fans must be feeling mixed emotions.
For Everton, a game they were expected to stroll through nearly went horribly wrong and a defeat could well have been a dagger to the heart of their Champions League aspirations. So a point from such a poor position must be seen as something to take confidence from with a trip to Old Trafford next up for the Toffees.
Lambert and Villa must be downbeat after losing a two goal advantage to a club going so well in the league this season. But they have to be reminded that they were expected to take a harsh beating on Merseyside, and this unexpected point must be used as a springboard to push the team to better things in their quest to avoid the drop. West Ham at home next for the Villa and the opportunity to inject hope into their long suffering fans.