NEARLY but not quite…for a little while it looked as if Everton’s fortunes on the pitch would mirror their efforts in the transfer market last night.
Thankfully the Blues were sick of that script – and eventually looked the real deal against West Brom to earn three points which could be more important than any deadline-day recruit.
David Moyes’ re-jigged team should have ensured a far less nervy finish than the one which transpired at Goodison after they allowed their dominance to disintegrate from a comfortable position in the second half.
But unlike Leroy Fer, they had the legs to go the distance in the end thanks largely to the efforts of England’s best left-back.
And if Leighton Baines was imperious, scoring a brace and tormenting the West Brom back line at will throughout, he was joined in that highly impressive form by Victor Anichebe, who produced a display to suggest the world won’t stop spinning if Moyes is unable to add another striker to his ranks before 11pm tonight.
Nobody would suggest Everton’s bid for a top four place would not benefit from some brisk business to bolster them in the coming months, but at least their manager continues to make fine use of what options he does have available.
The Blues boss fielded a different line-up as he sought to avenge one of only three league defeats his team have suffered this season, and his changes were rewarded – particularly in a reassuring, injury-free display from Kevin Mirallas who started ahead of the out-of-form Nikica Jelavic.
Nevertheless, transfer deadline day can still leave some nursing sore heads, and Sylvain Distin knows how they feel.
Although Everton had the most of the early possession there was a headache for the Frenchman when he felt the full force of Graham Dorrans’ fierce strike in the face after the ball had been cut back to him by Romelu Lukaku.
It was only a brief moment of menace from the visitors though, with Mirallas – restored to the starting line-up despite limping off against Bolton on Saturday – revelling in his free role in advanced midfield and giving Steve Clarke’s side plenty to keep them occupied.
Victor Anichebe, who was leading the attack in Nikica Jelavic’s absence, went fortuitously close when his effort deflected off Billy Jones and looped towards the top corner only to sail narrowly over much to Ben Foster’s relief. The Nigerian international was in confident mood though and rose powerfully to get on the end of Baines’ cross moments after and tee up Marouane Fellaini, who turned smartly and hit the angle of the crossbar with his close range strike.
In response West Brom looked to counter attack and get the ball swiftly to Lukaku but the Belgian’s runs were predictable, and Moyes’ rearguard looked at ease.
Despite their dominance Everton had allowed the tempo to slacken as the half hour approached so thank heavens, as ever, for their marauding left-back. Baines had already been giving Baggies defender Jones a torrid time when he waltzed past the right-back and his team-mate Jonas Olsson before unleashing a venomous 20-yard effort which beat Foster comfortably.
Thing went even more swiftly downhill for the luckless visitors shortly afterwards. George Thorne was stretchered off after colliding with Anichebe, and his replacement Claudio Yacob had only been on the pitch for three minutes when he bundled over the Everton striker in the area. Ref Michael Oliver pointed to the spot, and Baines confidently dispatched his second from the spot.
The Baggies might have gone in at the break in reasonable spirits had the deficit remained a solitary goal, but the penalty left them floored.
Lukaku blazed their best chance of the contest over shortly after the restart, and then it was normal service resumed. Anichebe continued to provide a strong focal point for Everton’s attack, and Steven Pienaar also began to recapture his best with his vast energy levels seemingly revived after a recent dip. Not to be outshone, Mirallas forced a diving save from Foster after fine individual work and another goal appeared imminent.
Few would have guessed it would have arrived for the visitors. John Heitinga, who had been the last-gasp hero at Bolton, provided the respite on a plate to West Brom after he took a poor touch instead of clearing Lukaku’s weak effort and when the ball looped into the air, substitute Shane Long climbed above the Dutchman and headed into the net. It was an infuriatingly self-administered setback.
Albion skipper Chris Brunt, who had provided the pass for Lukaku earlier, then rattled Tim Howard’s crossbar with a 30-yard free kick. From a position of eminent comfort, suddenly Everton were quaking.
Baines tried admirably to re-assert their dominance with more penalty area fancy footwork, but their cutting edge appeared to have abandoned them, while Long continued to revitalise the visitors.
Still, West Brom remained incapable of dealing with Everton’s left flank and Dorrans received a booking for yet another foul on Baines, which almost allowed Pienaar to score with a direct free-kick from an improbable angle. If that was close, Leon Osman should truly have restored the host’s superiority after good work from the South African presented him with a chance and the goal at his mercy. Unfortunately the midfielder, who has had such a fine season, leaned back and blazed his effort into the Gwladys Street.
That howler led to a nail-biting ending, which four minutes of injury time did nothing to ease.
But they survived and the gap to fourth-placed Tottenham is down to just one point, and another home game against a down-on-their-luck Midlands outfit – Aston Villa – awaits.
It could be a vibrant end to the month regardless of whether a raft of new faces are unveiled on the Goodison pitch on Saturday.
EVERTON (4-2-3-1): Howard, Jagielka, Distin, Heitinga, Baines, Neville (Capt), Osman, Pienaar, Anichebe (Jelavic, 84), Fellaini, Mirallas (Gibson, 65).
Subs not used: Mucha, Oviedo, Naismith, Hitzlsperger, Gueye.
GOALS: Baines (29, 45+2)
WEST BROMWICH ALBION (4-4-1-1): Foster, Olsson, Popov, Morrison (Long, 62), Brunt (Capt), Thomas (Rosenberg, 77), Thorne (Yacob, 43), Dorrans, Lukaku, McAuley, Jones. Subs not used: Myhill, Ridgewell, Tamas, Fortune.
BOOKINGS: Yacob, Dorrans
GOAL: Long (65)
REFEREE: Michael Oliver.