EVERTON edged closer to city rivals Liverpool in the Premier League table thanks to an incident-packed draw with Aston Villa at Goodison Park.
The Blues moved up a place to seventh, only four points behind the Reds, courtesy of a Leighton Baines penalty in the closing stages of the second half.
That spot kick, their first of this season, capped a thrilling game when David Moyes’s men were denied a Jermaine Beckford goal which appeared to have crossed the line, and Leon Osman missed a host of chances to seal all three points.
The Toffees midfielder had sparkled in the first half and gave his side the lead, but his misses were ultimately costly.
A patched-up Everton team, with a bench containing zero Premier League experience, nevertheless started strongly before a buoyant home crowd.
Jermaine Beckford was put through on goal with only Brad Friedel to beat by a misjudged Kyle Walker header, but the American pulled off a superb one handed save to prevent Everton taking the lead. However, David Moyes would probably have liked his man to take a touch instead of snatching at his strike firs time.
Everton pressed further when Leighton Baines drifted into the centre and slipped a delightful ball into Leon Osman who forced another good save from Friedel albeit after the linesman’s whistle had sounded for offside.
Villa were also committing men forward, causing predictable stress for the home side’s back line by using the pace of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing down the channels.
Gradually the visitors seized the initiative and put the Blues defence under some sustained pressure.
While Everton coped thanks to Sylvain Distin, again in imperious form, and the steady presence of both full backs, Villa were creating more chances.
David Dunne headed an inswinging Downing corner back across the box and Nigel Reo-Coker connected with a volley from eight yards that appeared goalbound until a vital block from Tony Hibbert carried it over the bar.
And the Midlanders continued to send crosses into Tim Howard’s box, while Phil Jagielka earned himself a booking for a crude hack on Gabriel Agbonlahor.
But Villahave been defensively porous on their travels all season, and subsequently opened up to allow Everton to take the lead.
Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, a bright, intelligent presence on the left wing, nicked the ball from Walker and passed to Osman who jinked delightfully past James Collins and evaded Walker’s last-ditch lunge to score.
Moyes’s tactics were working. Aware that a central midfield pair of Neville and Heitinga offered plenty of work rate and muscle but little creativity he instructed his troops to aim for the flanks and send it long. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective, and
the Blues ended the half in control.
Unfortunately they came out sluggishly after the break and paid for it. Downing was given too much time in possession, and the England man raced into the area and cut the ball across goal for Darren Bent to finish emphatically.
It was the sort of finish to be expected from a £25m striker, and Moyes may have watched ruefully, but his side reacted in the right way.
They began to push hard for an equaliser, and Osman could have doubled his tally from a pinpoint crossfield pass from Bily but he fired over on the volley.
And they believed they should have been in front shortly afterwards but for a highly controversial decision by the assistant referee. Substitute Magaye Gueye played a deft ball into Beckford’s path, and the striker’s shot hit the bar and appeared to bounce just over the line but was ruled out.
As Goodison furiously debated the merits of touchline technology, Villa broke down the other end. Brad Friedel pumped the ball upfield, and despite Jagielka winning his initial header the ball fell kindly for Ashley Young who chipped it over the top of a flat-footed Blues defence, and Bent delivered another classy finish.
It was an undeserved setback, but as the game truly opened up Everton should have quickly regained parity. Baines slipped a clever free kick to Bily who drilled the ball across the area and a weak clearance from Richard Dunne presented Osman with a chance to pick his spot from point blank range. Uncharacteristically he set himself clumsily and skewed his shot over the bar.
Gueye, who scored for the French U-21 side in their recent international, moved into the centre and began to look at home, menacing Villa repeatedly.
Anybody who thought Everton’s young-guns were on the bench simply to make-up the numbers were given a surprise when 19-year-old Greek striker Apsotolos Vellios was introduced for Distin as the game hung in the balance.
Everton got their equaliser soon after. Phil Jagielka embarked on an unlikely forward raid and was upended in the area by Jean Makoun.
Mike Jones pointed to the spot and Leighton Baines held his nerve to score.
Everton continued to probe but Villa held onto their point, and the Blues growing five-game unbeaten run in the league continues.