The most played game in English football served up another tense encounter as Everton and Aston Villa drew a competitive game 2-2. Leon Osman gave the home side the lead but two Darren Bent goals put Villa ahead before a late Leighton Baines penalty equalled the scores.
Injury-hit Everton named what must have been their youngest bench in the long history of the fixture, with only goalkeeper Jan Mucha over the age of 20. With Louis Saha out for the rest of the season Jermaine Beckford started alone up front, supported by Osman. The extent of Everton’s injuries meant the starting XI contained seven defenders, the back four and Seamus Coleman, Phil Neville and John Heitinga in midfield. Villa’s line-up contained their three England regulars, goal-scorer Bent and wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, as well as Richard Dunne and James Collins, the centre-back pair at the heart of the well-documented dissent that has struck the Midlands side.
The effect of Everton’s raft of injuries – which has seen Marouane Fellaini, Mikel Arteta, Jack Rodwell and Tim Cahill all ruled out, decimating David Moyes’ midfield – was a hard-working performance, full of desire and running but precious little creativity. The brightest spot of the first-half for Everton came from Osman, who, after being fed by Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, danced through the Villa defence and rolled a tame shot towards Brad Friedel, the ball escaping the goalkeeper and rolling agonisingly over the line. Osman was a consistent thorn in Villa’s side throughout the afternoon, and should have added to his goal with one or more of the four other efforts that were either presented to him or created himself.
If Everton’s current problems were seen in the line-up, Villa’s were evident when Everton went ahead just before half-time. The spark that had produced some neat passing and dangerous crosses disappeared for the 10 minutes before the referee signalled the end of the half, replaced by a more disjointed imitation as Villa’s players looked at their feet instead of rising to the challenge. The spark soon returned, however, when the second half began and slack marking on Everton’s left gave Downing the freedom to deliver into the penalty area, find Bent, and draw Villa level. The same player put the visitors ahead 20 minutes later, slipping the ball past the advancing Tim Howard and Everton’s lack of firepower on the pitch and options on the bench seemed destined to bite. Seconds earlier Beckford had smashed a shot against the bar, lacking the lethal touch of his Villa counterpart at the crucial time.
Magaye Gueye, the 20-year-old French forward, was introduced before the hour, looked powerful but raw, and was eventually joined by Apostolos Vellios, 19, and like Gueye making his league debut. Both fresh faces had moments of excitement but it took a dart from centre-back Phil Jagielka to give Everton the impetus to equalise, winning the penalty from which Baines equalised, exposing Villa’s fragility and inability to retain a lead and summing up Everton’s impotence. Baines’ spot-kick gave Everton the least they deserved, but both sides have major hurdles to overcome as the season draws to an end.