Bilyaletdinov winner revives Moyes' spirits
AEK Athens 0 Everton 1
The Spiros Louis, to give the Olympic Stadium its proper name, commemorates the Greek water carrier who in a very different arena, a few miles away, won the first marathon of the modern games.
When the final whistle went, Everton looked as if they had endured 26 miles rather than 90 minutes. The rain, the mud and the sapping, uneven pitch had been as much opponents as AEK Athens, many of whose players had refused to start this fixture because of non-payment of wages.
Everton may have fallen over the line, they may have lost first Dan Gosling and then Sylvain Distin to potentially serious hamstring injuries, but it was in the knowledge that Diniyar Bilyaletdinov's strike had guaranteed their qualification for the latter stages of the Europa League, where lurks more familiar opposition.
"Would I like to meet Liverpool?" the Everton manager, David Moyes, smiled. "Yes, in the final. Sunday's performance in the derby showed the spirit there still is at this club. This win shows there is a heartbeat. I feel as if there is blood pumping through my veins again."
Earlier in the competition, as Benfica had chewed up his depleted sides at both the Stadium of Light and Goodison Park, the Everton manager had sounded deeply weary of the competition, suggesting that, if elimination could be relatively painless, it was something he might not object to. Last night as his name was chanted from those who remained in the sodden stands, he sounded energised and refreshed.
"The fact that there is nothing riding on the final game [at home to BATE Borisov] is a vast relief," he said. "I think if we get our players back, we can be a match for most teams in the competition." Including, one felt, the team whose victory in the Merseyside derby crystallised all of Moyes' frustrations that have built up and seeped out in the two months that had produced a solitary win.
This victory was not without its consequences. On conditions where merely to keep one's footing was an achievement, each manager made two substitutions before the second half began. The loss of Gosling and Distin is something Everton, with nine players missing before kick-off, could ill afford.
When Merseyside last travelled to Athens en masse it was for a European Cup final in a stadium that overflowed with spectators and colour, rather than rainwater. Last night it was a deeply unglamorous place, with vast pools on the running track and firecrackers thundering through the empty stands.
Before kick-off the video screens showed film of AEK Athens' golden years in the Uefa Cup, which included footage of Queen's Park Rangers' Gerry Francis dancing through their defence on a Loftus Road pitch that looked like a Norfolk mudflat. It was rather better than the surface Everton had to endure last night.
Whenever foreign footballers are mentioned, whether in phone-ins or in print, it has always been with a question mark about "character". And yet although Moyes' stand-in defenders, Shane Duffy and Seamus Coleman, who cleared what appeared a certain equaliser from Gustavo Manduca off the line, played their part with a resolute heroism, Jo, the street footballer from Sao Paulo showed the greatest capacity to adapt to conditions.
There was probably no one else on either side who could have taken down Tim Cahill's flick on from a long punt upfield, played it through the gap between two AEK defenders and set up Bilyaletdinov to drive in. In the second half, he skipped through several challenges, shot hard and low and was only denied another goal by Sebastian Saja's gloves. It replicated a save Tim Howard made from Panagiotis Tachtsidis in the first half, which sent a film of mud spraying up towards his face. Shortly afterwards, he went to take a goal kick and fell flat on his backside.
"They were conditions like the old times," his manager said. "I would have enjoyed it out there." As defeat followed disappointment, as injury piled upon injury, the Everton manager has given the impression of enjoying very little. Last night he began, very thinly, to smile once again.
AEK Athens (4-2-3-1): Saja; Georgeas, Geraldo, Majstorovic, Juanfran; Kafes, Makos (Manduca, 29); Hersi, Tachtsidis, Leonardo (Scocco, h-t); Pavlis (Blanco, 62). Substitutes not used: Arabatzis (gk), Araujo, Karabela, Gentzoglou.
Everton (4-4-1-1): Howard; Gosling (Baxter, 11), Hibbert, Distin (Duffy, 16), Baines; Pienaar, Coleman, Fellaini, Bilyaletdinov; Cahill; Jo (Yakubu, 73). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Saha, Agard, Mustafi.
Referee: C Circhetta (Switzerland).
Remaining fixtures: Thursday 17 December: Benfica v AEK Athens, Everton v BATE Borisov.
* Celtic's first victory of their Europa Cup campaign proved in vain last night as Tony Mowbray's side were knocked out despite a 2-0 win over Hapoel Tel Aviv at Parkhead last night. Giorgios Samaros put Tony Mowbray's side ahead midway through the first half and Barry Robson doubled the lead after 68 minutes. Hamburg and Hapoel will progress from Group C.
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