The score was 2-1, the winner is scored in the last breath of stoppage time, a great stadium erupts. It is a scenario that will forever bring a smile to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s boyish face. Now, it was grim and impassive.
This was not a match that decided a European Cup, but it may go some way to deciding whether Cardiff survive in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson, Solskjaer’s mentor, has a mantra that teams in the relegation zone average a point per game in the last quarter of the season. Since Everton had won every match at Goodison Park since Boxing Day, this would have been a precious one to take back to south Wales and until the last minute of stoppage time they had it.
“We could have had three,” said Solskjaer. “It was a stonewall penalty for Wilf Zaha. He went through two or three challenges and it was Sylvain Distin who tripped him. It’s a cert.
“David Marshall has been outstanding in goal for us all season. He was beaten twice here; once by a deflection, the other by a mis-hit. We can talk about it all day long but I am sitting here with no points and we need points.”
The goal that decided this game was not even a particularly good one; a sliced, mistimed volley from Seamus Coleman that deceived everyone, including the excellent Marshall.
To list Marshall’s saves, the best of which was an instinctive tip over the bar from Romelu Lukaku in the first half, would be to suggest that Everton pummelled Cardiff, which was not quite the case. At times, they still appeared hungover from the defeat at Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup with passing ropey enough to suggest they had been drinking cheap whisky for a week.
Roberto Martinez and Solskjaer have been friends since the days they and Jordi Cruyff lived in Manchester and went to each others’ houses to talk football. Naturally, the Everton manager was generous in his assessment of Cardiff, praising Solskjaer’s tactical flexibility and the spirit shown by his players.
“We may have deserved the points but Cardiff deserve a lot of credit,” he said. “We lost in the 92nd minute at Chelsea so I know exactly how Ole feels.” Martinez did not try to argue against the penalty for the foul on Zaha, adding that the referee, Roger East, had made some “interesting decisions”.
Among them was the one not to dismiss Kévin Théophile-Catherine for a wild challenge on Gareth Barry in the first half. The one thing that might have saved the Frenchman was that, although the challenge was reckless, it was not high.
Three defeats in London at Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal may have stalled Everton’s season but they have responded to each one with a win, although each has been rather more laboured than the last.
Frustration was already crackling around Goodison when Everton broke through. Given his talent and understandable arrogance, playing alongside Gerard Deulofeu may not be as rewarding as watching him. The young Catalan shimmered as he cut inside Gary Medel and only he would know whether he intended to shoot or cross. Whatever it was, the ball struck Steven Caulker’s leg and left Marshall helpless.
Earlier in the season that would have been that but there is a weariness about this small Everton squad and they conceded a very tired goal when Juan Cala attempted to control Peter Whittingham’s free-kick and saw the ball strike his stubbled chin before it struck the net.
This time Everton did respond with some sustained pressure. Marshall saved once more from Lukaku and when the board went up indicating four minutes of stoppage time, they seemed to have earned their point. It proved as temporary as the Bayern Munich ribbons that were attached to the European Cup when Solskjaer struck.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Distin, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; Deulofeu (McGeady, 61), Osman (Barkley, 82), Mirallas (Naismith, 61); Lukaku.
Cardiff City (5-3-2): Marshall; Da Silva (Zaha, 79), Caulker, Cala, Théophile-Catherine, John; Kim, Medel, Mutch (Whittingham, 57); Noone (Daelhi, 61), Campbell.
Referee: Roger East.
Man of the match: David Marshall (Cardiff)
Match rating: 6/10