Everton's finest performance under David Moyes' management, Aston Villa's feeblest under David O'Leary. An afternoon of extremes provided evidence that the Merseyside club's remodelled midfield can deliver a Champions' League place and give their motto of "Only the best is good enough" a twist for modern times. This season, fourth best will definitely be good enough.
Having made light of Wayne Rooney's defection, Everton were worse affected by the loss of Thomas Gravesen to Real Madrid last month. Eight games had brought two wins. By installing Mikel Arteta alongside Tim Cahill and Lee Carsley at Villa Park, Moyes reinvigorated the heart of his side. For arguably the first time, they looked like a team that would grace Europe's élite tournament.
Arteta, on loan from Real Sociedad, is far from a straight replacement for Gravesen. Using his low centre of gravity and deft touch to outwit opponents, he is a throwback to the era of Kendall, Harvey and Ball. With Carsley the defensive counterweight and Cahill covering every blade of mud, the balance was more positive than before.
Moyes acknowledged that Arteta's passing offered "something different" and spoke of "a new blend". Whether the manager will deem the trio solid enough for Everton's next away game, the potential fourth-place decider at Liverpool, is another matter.
Yet against a Villa team who went from the supine to the ridiculous Cahill, in particular, was like a man possessed, creating Everton's first and final goals for Leon Osman as well as heading them back in front after Nolberto Solano equalised. Ironically, the Australian might well have been in Villa's ranks had he not been injured when Graham Taylor tried to buy him from Millwall. At a mere £1.5m, he is testament to Moyes' eye for value.
"We must be the fourth-best team because the others are behind us," Moyes reasoned. "If people are saying we're not particularly good, what are they saying about the other sides? We never said we'd be up there, but we must remember we still haven't achieved anything."
Everton's 4,000 followers gave them a raucous ovation at the end. Moyes, asked about the way he and his players reciprocated, recalled last May's fourth-bottom finish, the Rooney saga and boardroom intrigue. "Everyone at the club took a battering. The fans too. People were saying it would be a miracle if we survived. Maybe rightly. So we decided we were all in it together."
Villa entered the final weeks of last season with designs on the place Everton now covet. Those who view the chairman, Doug Ellis, as the villain of an anticlimactic campaign point out that O'Leary was not allowed a spending spree. Then again, the departures from Goodison Park have outnumbered incoming players. Yet there was a cohesion and spirit about Everton that was conspicuously absent in Villa.
The Villa manager is wont to assert that he has the Premiership's smallest squad - Moyes made the same claim for Everton here. However, O'Leary did not seek to explain away a defeat that could easily have carried a six-goal margin. "I'd love to tell you that we had a hard match in midweek," he sighed, "but we've had a two-week break."
O'Leary reckoned Villa were "too nice", adding: "We can't carry anyone or depend on someone to do a bit of magic." Prior to Saturday and the promise of the creative partnership between Cahill and Arteta, it might have been Moyes talking.
Goals: Osman (17) 0-1; Solano (46) 1-1; Cahill (48) 1-2; Osman (67) 1-3.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel; Solano, Djemba-Djemba (Hendrie, 57), Hitzlsperger, Barry; L Moore (Vassell, 62), Angel. Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Laursen, Berson.
Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Yobo, Weir, Pistone; Osman, Arteta, Carsley, Cahill (Naysmith, 90), Kilbane; Bent (Ferguson, 88). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Plessis, Vaughan.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Djemba-Djemba, Solano, Hendrie.
Man of the match: Cahill.