Everton came to Fratton Park lying third in the Premiership but this win, earned in the most inauspicious fashion, told more than the League table can. On another day, with a more reliable striker than Marcus Bent, the Merseysiders might have polished off Portsmouth before Tim Cahill scored his goal, but they had the air of a team still inclined to feel that the lower reaches of the division will suck them down soon.
At least this time Cahill kept his shirt on. It was the Australian's dismissal two weeks ago for the bare-chested celebration of his winner against Manchester City that suddenly became one of the season's most contentious issues. Having learnt his lesson, if he can stay on the pitch for the rest of the campaign he could well continue to have a big say in Everton finishing high up the table. For the time being they have made their best start in the League for 26 years.
His goal was a surprisingly simple one, after both teams had made football look such a hard game. Ten minutes from time Thomas Gravesen curled in a free-kick from the right, Cahill outjumped Andy Griffin and headed past Shaka Hislop. He then had to think about what he did next and admitted: "I nearly pulled my shirt off again. I had to think about it and be sensible."
Harry Redknapp, the Pompey manager, had feared that outcome, saying: "I thought it was petering out to a draw but if they were going to get a goal it was going to be from a free-kick. They were better than us there."
David Moyes, who has now seen his side go seven-and-a-half hours without conceding a goal in the Premiership, opted for caution rather than bravado until he finally gave Bent a strike partner with 30 minutes left.
By then the Everton manager's charges had worn down their opponents, partly thanks to a five-strong midfield. It did the trick but, early on, when they switched off for two minutes and let Nigel Quashie near goal, the visitors could have found themselves two goals down. With 13 minutes gone the Scottish international had wandered infield and from 20 yards out his effort deflected off Eyal Berkovic but was well saved by the alert Nigel Martyn.
That was the trigger for an extraordinary passage of play over the next 120 seconds. Jolted into action by that escape, Everton broke down the left through Alessandro Pistone and the Italian's cross was met by Steve Watson, whose volley was well-timed but hit a post.
Straight afterwards, Quashie was once more given time and space to find his range. The former Nottingham Forest player has a powerful shot and this time set his sights from 25 yards, only to bend Martyn's crossbar and see his effort rebound to safety.
Moyes' men enjoyed that reprieve, but were denied by just as slender a margin when they crafted the slickest move of the opening period after David Weir found Gravesen down the left after 21 minutes. The Dane reached the byline and crossed for Bent, who was poised to tap into an empty net, but Dejan Stefanovic rescued the situation from a yard out.
In a tough game for both sets of players, Alan Stubbs came off worst with a cut head but that did not disturb Everton's equilibrium one iota. As Moyes said: "A big pat on the back for the lads. I'm delighted and it's just great to do so well. This is the same group of players more or less who did well two years ago and were doing the same things. But the position is not important now, its about the points you accumulate. The players have been smashing."
Goal: Cahill (80) 0-1.
Portsmouth (4-4-2): Hislop; Griffin, Primus, Stefanovic, Unsworth; Berger, Faye, Berkovic (LuaLua, h-t), Quashie; Yakubu, Fuller (Kamara, 68). Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Taylor, Cissé.
Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs (Yobo, h-t), Pistone; Watson, Gravesen, Carsley, Cahill, (Ferguson, 58), Kilbane; Bent. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Campbell, McFadden.
Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).
Booked: Portsmouth: Faye. Everton: Cahill.
Man of the match: Gravesen.