Everton have shown in recent years that they are not in the habit of giving up a fourth place to Liverpool lightly. When they climbed above them to such a height in October 2004 , they never fell back below it and, as they all but eliminated another of the pretenders to a Champions League place yesterday, they showed just what a battle Liverpool are facing.
Everton will be especially uncompromising if Yakubu Ayegbeni – who contributed much more here than the two goals that took his league tally to 12 – provides more of the same. The Nigerian made this a torrid afternoon in front of Fabio Capello for Sol Campbell and the imperious way the Everton striker cut inside the centre back to drive the ball past David James for Everton's third summed up Campbell's day.
Everton showed, when knocking Manchester City out of the fourth-place equation eight days ago, that a five-man midfield need not be a blunt instrument, and the crisp, angular one-touch moves between Tim Cahill, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar were thrilling at times in the first half. But Yakubu, now 12 goals to the good in the Premier League, was outstanding against his former club and as threatening while working off Cahill in the 18-yard box as in front of goal.
An imperious little juggle that sent Leon Osman through for a good chance just before the break – and a grin as he reflected upon it – showed that David Moyes' man-management seems to working on a player who has scored seven since provoking his manager's ire by showing up late from African Nations duty. "All the managers he's played for will tell you he scores goals wherever he is," Moyes said, as the "Feed the Yak" anthem issued around Goodison last night. "He is loved here and wanted and the players love having him."
Yakubu's spirit were certainly lifted by the way Portsmouth gifted Everton a lead after only 47 seconds. He played an immediate part, pressurising Lassana Diarra to win a foul, before poking home Steven Pienaar's ensuing free-kick after Campbell's miscue allowed Joseph Yobo to nod the ball towards him.
But Moyes' hand is also strengthened by the number of match-winners at his disposal. Mikel Arteta might have been injured but Tim Cahill, struggling with sickness and only able to train lightly this weekend, was tireless. The way he converted the goal that put Everton back ahead after Portsmouth's sustained pressure at the start of the second half - leaping to head home another Pienaar cross that had flummoxed Sylvin Distin – provided a return on another high-perfomance level from him.
Portsmouth, who arrived here with eight away wins (only Chelsea have more) afforded Everton more space to play than many of their opponents have enjoyed this season.
But Everton owed much to Moyes' decision to introduce Andrew Johnson on 65 minutes, when it seemed that a point might be the most his side would get. Johnson had also been suffering from the sickness that has been washing through Goodison Park for more than a week but made an immediate impression. He had the ball in the net within three minutes, though Yakubu, who had put him through, was marginally offside.
Several probing runs had come from Johnson before he unleashed the 50-yard pass from his own half that sent Yakubu through for his second. Little wonder that Moyes was keener to talk about Johnson than Yakubu. "He has come on today and had a big impact," he said. "I don't think he's trained since [after the City game]. He's [only] passed a fitness test at 2pm. That's terrific," the manager said.
Though Diarra showed sparkle at times and Harry Redknapp believed his side might go on to win the match after half-time, Porstmouth's best prospects came from Glen Johnson down the right flank who, with Joleon Lescott pushing forward, found himself contending with – and twice beating – Pienaar. He had provided several telling deliveries in the first half before delivering a free kick on 37 minutes to which Jermain Defoe applied the faintest of flicks for an equaliser.
The way Portsmouth started the second half had Everton rueing their failure to capitalise on their first half dominance. Lescott did well to stifle Kanu before Tim Howard parried from the same player.
Cahill's strike seemed to remind the home side that they have not lost to a side outside the "big four" since October and when David James provided a reminder of his calamity days by missing a clearance outside his own area, recovering himself with a diving header from Leon Osman's cross, Everton were back in the ascendancy.
It was enough to have Moyes believing that fourth place is genuinely attainable. "I think we are getting better; we are continuing to get better," he said. "All we can do is put ourselves in a position to keep going forward."
Goals: Yakubu (47sec), 1-0; Defoe (37), 1-1; Cahill (72), 2-1; Yakubu (79), 3-1.
Everton (4-4-1-1): Howard; Hibbert (Johnson, 65), Yobo, Jagielka, Lescott; Carsley, Neville; Osman, Pienaar (Baines, 89); Cahill; Yakubu (Anichebe, 81). Substitutes not used: Vaughan, Anichebe, Wessels (gk).
Portsmouth (4-4-2): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson, Diop (Utaka, 76) Diarra, Mutari, Krancjar; Defoe, Kanu. Substitutes not used: Lauren, Baros, Ashdown (gk), Davis.
Referee: A Marriner (Birmingham).
Booked: Everton Pienaar. Portsmouth Distin.
Man of the Match: Yakubu.
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