Everton 1 Stoke City 0 match report: Kevin Mirallas wonder goal adds Everton to hunt for fourth
Sunday 31 March 2013
Despite being public enemy No 1, plaudits have to be directed towards Callum McManaman. His goal, 31 minutes into an FA Cup quarter-final on this ground three weeks ago, sank Everton to depths they had not imagined possible.
Out of the FA Cup and adrift of Europe, some supporters were even questioning the management of David Moyes. McManaman and Wigan have inadvertently galvanised this club.
Football's a bit fickle – not in the stands but in results – and two clean sheets and comfortable wins later, Everton head into the final weeks of the season harbouring ambitions of toppling Arsenal or Chelsea in the battle for Champions' League places. If they continue in this vein, they could surpass both.
Beating teams like Stoke should be second nature to this side and doing just enough to take the points is all that is necessary now.
"We are huge underdogs in the race for fourth, but we've got the big teams to play," Moyes said. "It's great that we're going into April talking about having a chance of a Champions' League spot."
Stoke did have fleeting moments but their midfield stubbornness renders taking hold of a game virtually impossible, although Jonathan Walters flicked the bar early on from Ryan Shotton's throw-in.
The noise coming from the Potteries earlier in the season had been that they wanted to forgo the physical onslaught that has served them so well in the past in a bid to appease supporters with a brand of football befitting a club aspiring to break into the Premier League's top 10. But when Tony Pulis, Stoke's manager, ordered Shotton to stop taking throws quickly, it told the whole story.
As it stands, they still have that chance to once again finish higher than before. Credit to them for that, but the frustration festering among supporters is that Pulis has blown millions on attacking players – a staggering £80 million spent in the last five years – without evolving their style.
So when they won a free-kick in the final third, the rigidity of Pulis's set-up should have at least equipped them to pick up a second ball and continue aerially probing.
The worrying soft centre that has suddenly surfaced, however, allowed Everton to break.
Kevin Mirallas picked up possession in his own half and slalomed his way beyond defenders at high speed, dumping Marc Wilson on his backside before sliding the ball past Asmir Begovic.
"That was the Mirallas from the start of the season," Moyes said. "There were signs against Manchester City last week that he's getting back to the way he was. He has been out with injury and is just beginning to regain some confidence."
Exasperation was then etched on the face of Pulis when Walters saw a wonderful bending effort well saved. Who knows whether that was a reaction to the quality of the stop or Walters having the audacity to shoot from distance?
Despite being only two points behind Fulham, who are in the top half of the table, Stoke have won only once in 2013. The congestion beneath, in a desperate scramble for safety, is threatening to engulf them. With four games to play against sides scrapping for their lives to come, April will provide answers to what sort of credentials Stoke possess.
Robert Huth went close from a Glenn Whelan set-piece, while Shotton fluffed his lines, heading over the bar from inside the six-yard box. It would have only only Stoke's 12th goal from open play this season.
"It's about getting to those 40 points as quickly as you can," Pulis said, signalling the club's true aim. "We're not scoring goals. That's a bit of a worry, but the commitment today was first class. We played some really good football. The players are having a go, but things aren't breaking for us."
There was also Michael Owen, sat on the bench, pondering how it came to pass that this was the 250th club game he has missed since joining Newcastle United in 2005.
It is not totally beyond the realms of possibility that his career may end with relegation.
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