IN the end it proved more of a nuisance than a banana skin. Everton avoided the fate of their Merseyside neighbours on their visit to Boundary Park, but they will be annoyed at their inability to put League One opposition to bed.
A replay at Goodison on Wednesday week should, theoretically, be traversed without trouble, but extra games are something David Moyes’ side could do without at this stage of the season.
Having earned, as much through necessity as anything, a reputation for finishing campaigns strongly in recent years, the worry is that this Everton side is running out of steam. The evidence here, against a robust, direct Oldham Athletic side, did little to dispel that theory.
Matt Smith’s header, touched past Tim Howard amid a crowd scene in the fifth minute of stoppage time, earned the Latics a replay they definitely merited. It was the game’s final act, but followed a final 20 minutes in which Everton had, alarmingly, retreated further and further.
Moyes’ men spent the closing stages defending deeper and deeper, unsettled by Smith’s aerial prowess, unable to utilise their own Premier League class. The sight of Darron Gibson, with time and space to pick a pass from the edge of his own box, hammering the ball 50 yards into touch, told its own tale. No wonder Moyes accused his side of “panicking” in the dying stages, though the manager’s decision to send on Shane Duffy for Nikica Jelavic with 90 seconds remaining did little to change the narrative.
Oldham were, by that point, bombarding Tim Howard’s penalty area with high balls, with Smith winning the majority. It was almost inevitable that the 6ft 6in striker, whose goals had slain Liverpool in the fourth round, would have some kind of impact, but Moyes was rightly disappointed by his side’s inability to contain the former Droylsden man, who won just about everything in the air following his arrival just after the hour mark.
Everton appear, on the face of it, better equipped than most sides to handle a physical bombardment. They have experience, height and strength in their ranks, but there is a softer centre to this team than Moyes would like. The goals they conceded here would have disappointed a League One side, never mind a Premier League one.
In 31 games in all competitions, they have managed just five clean sheets. Given that those fixtures have included games with Leyton Orient, Leeds United, Cheltenham Town, Bolton Wanderers and now Oldham, and that their defence contains two England internationals and players of the experience of Howard, Sylvain Distin and Phil Neville, that is a worrying statistic.
The annoyance here was that they looked to have done the hard work. They could have crumbled following Jordon Obita’s opener, but were level with a route one goal of their own, from Victor Anichebe, 11 minutes later. When Phil Jagielka headed them ahead three minutes into the second half, the game was there to be killed. It had to be killed.
But with Jelavic horribly out of sorts – the Croatian’s form, or lack of, is a bigger issue than Moyes would have you believe – with Marouane Fellaini seemingly playing at half pace, and with half-time substitute Kevin Mirallas intent on running up blind alleys down the right flank, the door was always left ajar. When Oldham pushed it open, it was hard to argue they didn’t deserve it. They were the more adventurous, the more forward-minded, the more energetic.
The good news is that Everton should still book their place in the quarter-finals – though they will, of course, be mindful of the last time Oldham came to Goodison, in 2008. With Moyes’ future uncertain – his pre-match comments will have set alarm bells ringing amongst Blues fans, no question – the FA Cup has assumed even greater significance than usual this season. There is no chance Everton will take the replay lightly.
They will, however, need to play better than they did here if they are to progress. And they may have to dig deep into those energy reserves. The season won’t get any easier between now and May; Moyes will hope his side have enough left in the tank to see it through to a successful conclusion.