Everton 1 Middlesbrough 0
Wayne Rooney seems to have been thoroughly cleansed from Everton's system. When he was sold, their best bet appeared to be to limp through until the January transfer widow creaked open when they could begin to spend some of Manchester United's money.
Instead, the People's Club has taken some broad, confident strides and although they are highly unlikely to remain in a Champions' League position, it appears that it was last season rather than David Moyes' first full campaign at Goodison Park that was the blip. In the words of their captain, Alan Stubbs, the last month has been about: "turning all the crap that has been thrown at us into a positive". This was Everton's fourth victory in five matches and, like last weekend's win at Manchester City, it was fashioned by an almost extinct breed, the lower-league striker brought to a Premiership club. Unlike Tim Cahill, Marcus Bent did not get himself sent off by removing his shirt after scoring, probably because he could not quite be sure the goal was his.
Bent is not the fastest footballer on Merseyside and as he dashed through on goal, he was gradually overhauled by Gareth Southgate, shooting as the Middlesbrough captain made his tackle. The ball bobbled from a combination of Mark Schwarzer's chest and Franck Queudrue's body and trickled across the line.
Had Rooney, or indeed any high-quality forward, been fit and available to Moyes, Everton might have destroyed a Middlesbrough side whose poverty can be judged by the fact that their manager, Steve McClaren, had used all of his substitutes with 59 minutes gone.
McClaren is over-reliant on his strikers, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka. They had scored nine goals between them this season, while his midfield had contributed one; but yesterday both strikers were stifled by a back four whose work ethic is at the core of Everton's footballing philosophy.
They were at their best in the last 15 minutes, when Middlesbrough, who McClaren claimed had been drained "physically and emotionally" by their first experience of European football, finally found a rhythm. However, they were kept at bay by desperate and committed tackling and although McClaren argued Boro deserved a point on the basis of that, their play for the previous 75 had merited nothing.
Even then, Everton might have gone further ahead as James McFadden sprinted more than half the pitch towards a net guarded only by Schwarzer. In a year at Goodison, the Scot has never scored and now he did not even manage a shot, allowing the keeper to smother the ball. For 15 men in the home dressing-room this would have seemed a fine victory but part of McFadden would have felt beaten.
Goal: Bent 47 (1-0).
Everton: (4-4-1-1) Martyn, Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs, Pistone, Watson (McFadden 81), Gravesen, Carsley, Kilbane, Osman, Bent (Ferguson 74). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Naysmith, Yobo.
Middlesbrough: (4-4-2) Schwarzer, Parnaby, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue, Nemeth (Doriva ht), Parlour, Boateng, Zenden (Downing 59), Hasselbaink, Viduka (Job 59). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Cooper.
Bookings: Everton: Kilbane. Middlesbrough: Boateng, Parlour, Riggott, Doriva.
Man of the match: Osman.