Should Everton ultimately make it to European football next season these might be the dozen minutes in which they did it. Time was sprinting away, the hangover from Tuesday’s debacle in the Merseyside derby was continuing to sting.
Roberto Martinez, their manager, who had been forced to operate without a specialist striker, was gazing at a second straight defeat.
Everton held their nerve, although the crowd, who screeched for the final whistle long before it was blown, did not. The thinness of Martinez’s squad might well count against them – there are not many contenders for the Champions’ League who would be unable to field a centre-forward – but Everton do appear to have the required attitude.
“That is our most satisfying victory of the season,” said Martinez, who claimed this was less a case of his players suffering from the after-effects of the 4-0 defeat at Anfield as being unable to cope with Aston Villa’s tactics that saw Paul Lambert field three centre-halves and a tightly packed midfield.
“It was a very different tactical puzzle to ones we are used to and we became worried and cagey,” he said. “But this is a team with a knack of looking adversity in the face.
“We showed style and character and you can get excited about the end of the season after a performance like that.”
At Anfield, Martinez had been accused of putting his trust in players who were not properly fit. Here, the catalyst was undoubtedly Steven Pienaar, who is still feeling his way back from injury. He had been brought on at the interval in place of Ross Barkley, who had lost possession to Fabian Delph for the move, which was beautifully finished by Leandro Bacuna, that produced Aston Villa’s opener.
Pienaar’s flicks and passes had threatened to produce something but too often those alongside the South African had failed to anticipate them. Steven Naismith, however, did foresee a measured flick that Lambert thought Villa’s defence should have intercepted. The Scot was clear on goal and did not miss.
Until then, Aston Villa, who had been unfortunate to only draw at Liverpool last month, had produced another well-measured performance away from home. Aiden McGeady, the new winger, had struck the post with his first shot at Goodison Park but, thereafter, the closest Everton had come to an equaliser had been Christian Benteke heading past his own post.
Too often they produced crosses for a target who was not there. Romelu Lukaku had been a casualty of the Merseyside derby and, although Goodison did see a newly signed centre-forward on the pitch, Lacina Traore, who has been brought in on loan from Monaco, was only being introduced to the crowd and was, in any case, carrying a hamstring injury.
Crucially, as the game reached a climax, Villa lost their captain and centre-half, Ron Vlaar, to a similar complaint and conceded a free-kick 25 yards out. Leighton Baines might have taken it but Kevin Mirallas (left) insisted and found the top right corner of Brad Guzan’s net.
“Their first goal was disappointing,” said Lambert. “The second was a world-class free-kick.”
Since Everton had invited Eric Bristow, who was hosting an exhibition at Ormskirk, to the game it was tempting to say the darts maestro could not have found double top any better but the Crafty Cockney had left the posh seats by the time that Mirallas struck.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Stones (Naismith, 70), Jagielka, Distin, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; McGeady (Hibbert, 87), Barkley (Pienaar, 45), Osman; Mirallas.
Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Guzan; Baker, Vlaar (Albrighton, 80), Clark; Bacuna, Delph, Westwood, Betrand; Weimann (Tonev, 87); Holt (El Ahmadi, 61), Benteke.
Referee: Robert Madley.
Man of the match: Pienaar (Everton)
Match rating: 6/10
Everton 2 Aston Villa 1 - in pictures
Everton 2 Aston Villa 1 - in pictures
1/7 Leandro Bacuna gives Villa the lead
2/7 Bacuna celebrates his goal
3/7 Kevin Mirallas has a shot at goal
4/7 Distin and Benteke battle for the ball
5/7 Steven Naismith equalises for Everton
6/7 Kevin Mirallas gives Everton the lead with a free kick
7/7 Everton celebrate their winning goal