If this is how Everton fare against the striker Liverpool discarded, blindfolds will be required at Goodison Park when the European champions arrive for tomorrow evening's derby. Mind, to judge from some of Everton's defending they were wearing them last night.
So too, Evertonians will contend, was the referee, Mike Riley. The official inexplicably missed a brace of handballs in the build-up to Aston Villa's opening goal, by former Liverpool striker Milan Baros after 35 minutes. However, Everton should have defended better then and Riley cannot be held culpable for their subsequent collapse. With Baros giving £5m summer signing Per Koldrup a torrid full debut, Villa rattled in further goals from Mark Delaney, Juan Pablo Angel and Baros again to inflict Everton's second successive 4-0 defeat.
"It was a blatant, deliberate handball. It should have resulted in a booking - it resulted in a goal," said the Everton manager, David Moyes. "It wasn't solely down to the referee but it was a big part of the game. We had played quite well and it was a turning point."
"It was a very important goal and I think maybe it was handball," admitted Baros. David O'Leary, the Villa manager, added: "We got a break there, but we were due one."
Victory was a massive fillip for the leading team in a depressed footballing region. Before the kick-off 19 Midlands clubs had been in action in the five senior English divisions: only Nottingham Forest and Walsall won.
Among the beaten were Birmingham and West Bromwich, which delighted both Villa and Everton as each were on the brink of the relegation zone. Their nervousness was evident in the error-ridden opening stages. Kroldrup looked ill at ease and his early hesitancy could have twice been punished by both Luke Moore and Baros.
Everton's reply was led by James Beattie shooting optimistically from 30 yards in response to the barracking he was receiving from the home support. Beattie was targeted because he joined Everton ahead of Villa in January and, given his subsequent performances, Villa fans should be pleased he forsook them. His lack of confidence was highlighted a few minutes later when, unmarked, he ghosted to meet Mikael Arteta's clever cross but glanced his header over.
This proved Everton's last chance to take charge. Inevitably it was scrappy, fortunate and controversial. Ridgewell, attempting to control a lofted free-kick, seemed to handle; more obviously so did Baros after Gareth Barry had played the ball back in. It was the £7m summer signing's third goal of an indifferent season.
Two minutes after the break came the decisive second as Mark Delaney stole in at the near post to steer neatly in James Milner's corner. His last Premiership goal had been scored in the 20th century. It was a timely way to mark last week's transfer request.
The cushion provided by the goal allowed Villa to relax and their play adopted a more confident air. "We played the way we practise," O'Leary said. Yet, though Baros twice went close, Thomas Sorensen needed to make smart saves from Beattie and Simon Davies before Villa ruthlessly cut loose on the break. Angel played a pair of neat one-twos with Baros before drilling a shot between Martyn's legs, then Baros swept in a superb cross from Aaron Hughes.
"We look very fragile and liable to concede. We've a soft centre," concluded Moyes. "If we can get a run together, we'll be talking of going for Europe," said a much happier O'Leary.
Goals: Baros (35) 1-0; Delaney (47) 2-0; Angel (82) 3-0; Baros (84) 4-0.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Delaney, Ridgewell, Bouma; Milner (Bakke, 62), McCann, Davis (Gardner, 84), Barry; Moore (Angel, 70), Baros. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), De La Cruz.
Everton (4-4-2): Martyn; Hibbert, Yobo, Kroldrup, Neville; Arteta, Cahill (Ferguson, 80), Davies, Osman (Bent, 64); McFadden, Beattie. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Kilbane, Ferrari.
Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Baros.
Attendance: 32,432.Reuse content