So far this season, Sven Goran Eriksson has appeared to treat Manchester City's continued presence on the heels of the Premier League's leading group as if it were rather a pleasant surprise, resisting the temptation to over-enthuse at his team's remarkable home record and reacting to defeats as something to be expected at this embryonicstage of their development.
Last night, however, the sang-froid was not so easy to maintain. The prize for City, had they won here, would have been to establish themselves firmly in fourth place. Instead, after a performance that began slowly and still yielded nothing even after dominating the second half, they slipped to seventh, and Eriksson was not in an excusing mood.
"We started the game 40 minutes late," he said. "The second half was OK but in the first half we were kicking long balls – I counted 17 or 18 – and we are not good at that. In training they are forbidden. If we want to play that way I would have to sell half my players.
"We were not brave enough. Everton played an aggressive game, to try to prevent us from playing, but you have to be big enough to beat that if we want to be a great team. It was a matter of attitude."
Everton, thrown off-kilter by the effects on their roster of the African Nations Cup, were not particularly impressive, but a first-half goal by their central defender Joleon Lescott was enough to secure them the points despite a second half spent largely in rearguard mode, moving them up one place to fifth, although the satisfaction their manager, David Moyes, drew from victory, coming after the FA Cup defeat by Oldham and Lescott's own goal in the first-leg reverse against Chelsea in the Carling Cup, was tempered with a warning.
Moyes, missing Leon Osman and Andrew Johnson through injury and with Joseph Yobo, Ayegbeni Yakubu and Stephen Pienaar at the African Nations Cup, had to make more adjustments than he would prefer, and it showed in a performance that relied on grit and solid defending to obtain the desired result.
"We knew it would be hard with so many players missing and we came through it well," he said. "But it is going to be a difficult month for us."
The plus point was Mikel Arteta, who returned from suspension to be the catalyst for most of Everton's best attacking moves. But Moyes feels he works better with the underrated Osman to fetch and carry alongside him, and with Manuel Fernandes, the Portuguese inter-national, unable to begin his second loan spell because of late international clearance, it was a makeshift Everton line-up.
The surprise in City's starting XI had been Eriksson's preference for Nery Castillo, the Mexican who has part-funded his own move on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk, ahead of Stephen Ireland. With Elano back after missing the FA Cup game at West Ham it gave the Swede the opportunity to play two creative players in the space behind Darius Vassell.
All this had promised an open, attacking contest but Castillo was ineffective and substituted in the second half, and with greater numbers in midfield it was Everton who tended to dictate. The 31st-minute goal that would ultimately prove decisive was not hard to foresee, certainlyafter Tim Cahill had almost broken through seven minutes earlier, drawing a superb save from Joe Hart before skewing a difficult follow-up over the bar.
When the goal came it was via Phil Neville's astute decision to pass the ball wide again to Artetaafter the Spaniard's corner from the right had been repelled. Arteta's second delivery was low and to the near post, where Lescott showed the finishing skills of a forward to flick the ball past Hart and score his sixth goal ofthe season.
City's transformation in the second half was extraordinary, suggesting that beneath Eriksson's cool exterior is a willingness, when occasion demands, to throw a few metaphorical tea- cups. Yet defensively Everton were resolute, and for all their dominance of possession in the second half City were never able to test Tim Howard seriously until Martin Petrov's stinging low drive in stoppage time.