Emerton so close to sinking Everton

Blackburn Rovers 0 - Everton 0
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The Independent Football

Christmas is the time of miracles and, if you listen to some football people, 2004 has added another. To find Everton in second place in the Premiership is confounding many, and anyone trying to work out why at Ewood Park yesterday would have been left none the wiser.

Championship contenders come in all shapes and styles but Everton, for all their adherence to organisation and the work ethic, do not conform even within this wide choice. You do not always play champagne football to win titles, but there is usually a bit more fizz than this.

Just one effort on target - a sharp turn and shot, smartly saved at his near post by Brad Friedel - is unlikely to have Arsenal and Chelsea quivering in their boots. They may keel over in amazement, however, if Everton continue to make so much out of relatively little into the New Year.

Blackburn were no better but at least they had their lowly position by way of exoneration. They need, as manager Mark Hughes has said, to learn how to win at home. Yesterday, apart from an injury-time shot from Brett Emerton that hit the post, they looked no nearer to finding it.

The teams arrived at Ewood Park separated by so many positions that the word "gap" did not do justice to the chasm. But if the quality of the Premiership is strained in some minds by the appearance of Everton in second place, a redeeming quality of the division is the competition within it.

So it was not a surprise that Blackburn, one win at home this season before yesterday's game, had the better of the opening exchanges and they had every reason why they had nothing tangible to show for an initial salvo that had Everton groping for a shape.

In the third minute Paul Dickov, an irritant's irritant if ever there was one, showed the better side of his nature with a neat interchange with Jay Bothroyd and was lining up a spectacular volley when Tony Hibbert, bravely flung himself in the way to make the block.

Hibbert, whose steadiness is one of the reasons why Everton found themselves in their elevated position, also distinguished himself moments later when he cleared off the line from Garry Flitcroft, although the Blackburn midfielder did make it easier for Hibbert by miscuing his shot from Emerton's corner.

You do not reach second place in the table without the ability to think on the hoof, however, and by crowding the left flank, Everton halted the flow from Emerton's boot and the visitors began to show some of their more admirable qualities if not many that added to the excitement. Hard-working and astonishingly quick to cut the time and space of the man in possession, they dragged themselves back to equality and finished the first half looking the more dangerous.

Marcus Bent must be difficult to play against because his speed, and eagerness to run, makes life uncomfortable for defenders and it was his distracting movement that almost opened a gap after 44 minutes. He went near post and, as the Blackburn rearguard went with him, Kevin Kilbane sneaked in behind and his header, from Thomas Gravesen's cross, was only just too high.

Three chances in 45 minutes of football do not make a great advert for football, but to be fair to the ballboys they at least tried to smarten things up immediately after the interval and promptly incurred the wrath of referee Mark Halsey. When two balls suddenly appeared on the pitch, the referee ran over to the Blackburn manager to complain but as one wag accurately summed up: "It would be better if they confiscated all the balls." Cue an instant improvement? Sadly not, and while both teams were good at the defensive side of the game, neither had much of a clue when it came to the attack and it was not only Gravesen who was screaming for invention when the umpteenth move broke down barely beyond its embryonic stage.

The game was scrappy and tempers frayed, so while Halsey did not have to take out his notebook to note any goals, he did brandish it twice to caution Andy Todd and Hibbert. The first was for a cynical foul when Tim Cahill threatened to go off on a run, and the second for dissent. The mould needed breaking and Everton took out the battering ram to do it, using their time-honoured tactic of introducing Duncan Ferguson for the final quarter.

Everton had their totemic leader on the pitch but it was Blackburn who came nearest to breaking the rigid deadlock. Paul Gallagher had the ball in the net after 85 minutes but his "goal" was disallowed for offside and in the final seconds Emerton hit the post with a drive that was deflected. Nigel Martyn, in the Everton goal, need not have worried in retrospect. If ever a match look destined to 0-0, it was this one.