When Blackburn Rovers’ second equaliser of the game went in on Saturday, just days after Everton also surrendered a lead against Aston Villa, it seemed the Blues summer holidays had begun early. With seconds left however, Tim Cahill’s tap-in dragged Everton off the beach and extended the Toffees’ minute hopes of Europa League football a little while longer.
The crushing disappointment of Phil Jagielka’s own-goal last Wednesday seemed to end Everton’s chances of catching Villa once and for all – a feeling emphasised when the scores stood at 2-2 at Ewood Park. The Midlands club’s win over Portsmouth on Sunday keeps Everton at arm’s length but as long as it is mathematically possible for David Moyes’ men to catch Villa, they will not stop trying – a point Cahill made perfectly thanks to Yakubu’s good work in the left of Rovers’ penalty area. The mental strength Everton displayed to recover from twice losing a lead and still keep plugging away to win is impressive, but Mikel Arteta’s senseless Three Stooges impression – for which the Spaniard has apologised – could have hampered Everton’s day after the perfect start was made through the No.10 himself. Arteta is Everton’s on-pitch leader – even more than talisman Cahill or captain Phil Neville – and without him the Blues’ play deteriorates rapidly – the same footballing principles remain but there is no conductor to orchestrate the manoeuvres. Had Arteta seen red for his raised hand Everton’s season might have ended there and then.
With Arteta’s reprieve came a sublime first-half performance – more than one report compared Everton’s domination over Blackburn to Barcelona’s over Arsenal a few weeks ago, with the style of football not too dissimilar either. Everton were certainly dominant for much of the opening 45 minutes but still did not look secure – Cahill had to be more match saver than match winner to clear a corner off the line. Rovers’ stubbornness has to be admired – even if the overall style of their football does not – but Everton deserved the win and at this late stage of the season, any points picked up on the road are vital. In their next away game, the Blues travel to Stoke City – where they will be greeted by an avalanche to make Blackburn look like Barcelona – but with Arteta back from injury, free from suspension and carrying on his excellent spring form, outplaying the Potteries brutes is a distinct possibility. Stoke may be capable of some livewire play of their own but Tony Pulis is a good enough manager to realise he does not want to become embroiled in a football match with an Everton side listing Arteta at its heart – Stoke’s chances lie firmly in set-piece territory.
Before the trip to the Britannia Stadium, Everton welcome Fulham to Goodison Park – London to Liverpool may be a long journey but it is nothing compared to what the Whites will face as they decamp to Germany for Thursday’s Europa League tie. Going to Goodison – a ground the Cottagers traditionally fail at – will not be Roy Hodgson’s ideal tonic for his heavy-legged players and there may not be a better time to face one of the Premier League’s surprise packages. By then, the gap between Everton and Villa could still be four points, or as much as seven – the Villains meet Hull City on Wednesday. If it is the former, and Villa have lost to the Tigers, Everton will be thoroughly energised, but if it is the latter we could see a soporific game between one side with nothing to play for and another with other priorities – and how Everton would love to be in Fulham’s shoes, in sight of a European final. Certainly, if at the start of the season you were to choose either the Merseyside outfit or the team from west London to go into the Europa League’s latter stages, few outside of Craven Cottage would honestly have chosen Bobby Zamora and company. Nevertheless, Fulham have made it and are a shining example of what can be achieved through smart leadership and the performances of a handful of top class players – much like Everton themselves. When the two teams meet next Sunday, after the visitor’s first-leg meeting with Hamburg, Fulham’s European fate will be much clearer – Everton’s own continental destiny could be much earlier – Wednesday in fact, when the blue half of Merseyside become Hull fans for the day.
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