Pienaar 35, Distin 49
Sporting Lisbon 1
Veloso (pen) 87
Rarely has a 2-1 win been greeted with such a muted reaction at Goodison Park, but that was the effect Sporting Lisbon’s late penalty had on the Everton crowd, sucking the enthusiasm out of the stands and leaving the Toffees with much work to do in Portugal.
Everton rarely threatened to reach the heights they climbed last time out against Chelsea but were deserving winners over an average Sporting side, who displayed the customary technical ability possessed by most European sides but lacked a cutting edge, bar a first-half effort that struck the outside of the post. The visitors had an over-hit Jack Rodwell pass that led to a Sylvain Distin foul inside the area, for which the Frenchman was sent off, to thank for getting them on the scoresheet. Miguel Veloso’s spot-kick three minutes from time halved the deficit established by Steven Pienaar’s delightful 35th-minute strike and Distin’s bundled effort four minutes after the restart.
As if Sporting’s vital away goal was not bad enough, Everton also had to contend with the loss of Tim Cahill on the back of news that Marouane Fellaini will miss the rest of the reason. The Australian hobbled off after an hour and, with Mikel Arteta still some way from full fitness and Rodwell only just returned from injury himself, Everton will be hoping the inspirational No 17’s withdrawal was merely a precaution. Cahill was instrumental in the game’s opening goal, latching on to Phil Neville’s through ball and racing towards goal before wrong-footing the Lisbon defence with a back heel to tee up the onrushing Pienaar, who swept the ball left-footed beyond Rui Patricio. While Cahill and Pienaar’s magical combination was the most stunning midfield move of the night and Rodwell’s firmly-struck pass to Distin the most bothersome, Leon Osman’s superb display in the centre of the park was the most complete. The little midfielder gave a performance of assured quality, calmly bringing the ball out of defence and using his quick feet to join the attack with genuine threat.
It was a reserved performance from Everton, perhaps unwilling to over-commit against a Sporting side dangerous on the counter-attack. Prior to the error-strewn 30 seconds that gave Lisbon a lifeline, Everton’s passage to the next round seemed surprisingly comfortable. Holding a commanding two goal lead while barely getting out of first gear, Rodwell’s unwise ball and Distin’s slow reaction removed all doubt, if any existed to begin with, that the return leg will require a vastly improved performance, ideally one reminiscent of the Blues’ last sojourn to the continent in early December. Then, a battling performance earned a 1-0 win over AEK Athens and guaranteed Everton’s progression to this stage. A similarly heart-filled show is needed when the teams meet again on February 25.