THE ramshackle charm of Oldham’s Ice station Zebra might have been missing its usual arctic chill, but somehow Everton still managed to freeze.

The Blues were supposed to be better equipped to deal with the League One club’s spirited physical onslaught at Boundary Park, after apparently watching and learning from the fate of their rivals across Stanley Park last month.

Granted David Moyes’ men did not self-destruct in quite the same manner as Liverpool, but still they failed to make their Premier League class show convincingly enough against a team treading water in the third tier of English football. And sure enough they paid for it in the end.

Matt Smith’s last-gasp header to force a replay in this fifth round FA Cup tie must certainly not be mistaken as a death knell for Everton’s dreams of a trophy this season, but it was a frustrating reminder of the defensive vulnerability which has haunted the club even throughout its brightest start to a campaign in eight years.

With the fight for fourth place in the Premier League becoming an increasingly muddled proposition, the importance of the Cup had seemingly grown even further.

Certainly Moyes could give no stronger indication of his desire to progress in the competition, than the starting 11 he sent out to try and capitalise on what had become a quarter-final stage loaded with winnable fixtures against lower league clubs and supplemented by the demise of Arsenal.

Typically though, Everton quickly found a way to temper undue optimism. They might have started solidly enough, winning a string of early free-kicks as Leighton Baines went close with an effort which was deflected narrowly over the bar. But it wasn’t long before they conceded their customary goal in a season which has seen them keep just five clean sheets in 31 games so far.

Former Goodison prodigy Jose Baxter cleared a corner from his old club and Leon Osman slipped while attempting to stop Lee Croft from surging past him. Off the midfielder went eating up the yards to bear down on goal, and although his miscued shot shouldn’t have worried Tim Howard, it skewed into a useful cross that Jordan Obita prodded home at the far post. Regular observers of Everton’s haphazard defending this season simply nodded in numb familiarity.

The visitors’ passing failed to instil much optimism for a swift response, with the patch-work surface proving difficult, and the nerves among the Blues were palpable. Thank heavens then for the blunt instrument that is Victor Anichebe. The Nigerian equalised with a proper League One-style goal, seizing on Phil Jagielka’s long punt, turning James Tarkowski and rifling home a powerful shot.

There was little time to become complacent though. Obita capitalised on good hold-up play by Lee Barnard to unleash a dangerous strike which clipped the post and rolled across the face of goal. It was a let off, and should have signalled the swing in momentum Everton needed to seize the tie. Instead they remained laboured and below-par as Oldham’s gutsy endeavour kept them largely at bay.

Ironically Everton’s most threatening moments came from a direct approach more associated with their opponents, and Darron Gibson picked out Marouane Fellaini near the break with a lofted cross from the right which the Belgian headed onto the roof of the net.

Moyes decided to introduce another Belgian, Kevin Mirallas, for the second half in place of Anichebe, and the former Olympiakos forward made a swift difference. It was his menacing corner kick which dropped just in front of Dean Bouzanis, and Phil Jagielka managed to escape the bear-hugs of the Oldham defence to nod into the goal.

It signalled a period of calm and superiority for the Toffees, who began to pick Oldham apart with their best passing spell of the contest although they still lacked a cutting edge.

And it didn’t stop Obita being a menace, as he forced Phil Neville into an error and burst through on goal only to send a tame effort into the arms of Howard.

Buoyed by the opening, Oldham sent on their battering ram Smith to try and turn the tie, and his introduction gave the home fans extra heart even as Everton began to dictate the game again. Osman and Pienaar played nifty triangles as the Latics tired at chasing the ball, but still the away fans couldn’t quite relax.

Oldham sub Robbie Simpson fired a low cross into the area and Smith turned smartly to force a terrific low save from Howard. At the other end Jelavic blazed over a glorious chance to effectively seal the contest.

That miss was one pivotal moment, but Everton’s goalkeeper contributed another just before 90 minutes had elapsed. Simpson controlled a cross into Everton’s area and turned well to unleash a goal-bound effort that Howard again had to be at his best to divert.

It should have been enough to seal a place in the quarter-finals, but that reckoned without the scourge of Merseyside, Smith, who struck again deep into injury time as Moyes’ men allowed themselves to be pushed deeper and deeper.

If Everton are to progress into the quarter-finals, they’re going to have to do it the hard way now. The missed chance by Jelavic when the tie was still in their hands will add further fuel to fears that the Croatian’s first six months on Merseyside were an anomaly, and Moyes’ men still badly miss his former predatory guile.

Jelavic’s continued indifferent form only reinforces why Moyes was so keen to recruit another goal-scorer in January.

But there will be any time to debate that after this pivotal season has drawn to its conclusion.

For now the prospect of leaving that champagne on ice is still alive.

Everton just have to make sure they don’t freeze again in a fortnight.