It took some dazzling feet from Leon Osman to create Everton’s best chance from open play of the game, and fortunately Seamus Coleman converted with a powerful far post header. Everton had the vast majority of possession and pressure in the opening 45 minutes – at one point, the balance was tilted 87-23 in Everton’s favour – but Mark Schwarzer barely had a save to make. The Australian was helpless when Osman danced through the Fulham defence to tee up Coleman’s sixth goal of the season but those moments of genuine quality to unlock well-marshalled defences have been few and far between. They are the preserve of the game’s most devastating players, and bringing them to Goodison Park would cost money the club simply does not have.
David Moyes has unearthed a few players of that calibre in his time on Merseyside – Mikel Arteta, Landon Donovan, Steven Pienaar – and the home-grown Osman, who is occasionally capable of such moments of magic. This current Everton side, however, is short on those fantasy footballers, with Arteta injured and Pienaar now playing his trade with Tottenham Hotspur, and the result is a much more workmanlike outfit reliant on set-pieces and rare moments of skill. It is not always pretty, and sometimes it is not even effective, but for the most part Everton do still try to play the ball through midfield, but the glaring fact remains that Leighton Baines is the Blues’ most dynamic creative force, although stopping the England international has so far been beyond nearly every Premier League team this season.
The full-back had a quiet evening against the Cottagers but Saha’s second-half goal meant the onus on Everton to attack really died before the hour mark. After the Frenchman doubled Everton’s advantage the game was almost all Fulham, as the home side fell deeper and deeper, to the point of defending on their own 18-yard line. The nervousness may have come more from the stands than the players – Everton’s supporters have seen too many false dawns this season to ever be truly comfortable – but as the white shirts poured forwards after pulling a goal back and the blue shirts dropped deeper still, the tension was palpable. It was the season in microcosm, but with the happy ending of three valuable points.
What would constitute a happy ending to the season remains to be seen. After an autumn that saw Everton spend time in the bottom three, sitting eighth as Easter approaches is a startling achievement, yet still feels a disappointment in the shadow of pre-season optimism. Both Europe and relegation may be out of the question, leaving mid-table mediocrity the likely outcome.