Everton snookered by Stead's big break

Everton 0 - Blackburn Rovers 1
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The Independent Football

Nice pitch, shame about the football. The reverse has been true for most of this season at Goodison Park, but the best Everton performance yesterday came from Bob Lennon, the head groundsman, whose workforce ripped up a mudheap and replaced it inside a fortnight with a surface on which Ronnie O'Sullivan would have excelled. Unfortunately for the Goodison faithful, Everton played like a team of snooker players rather than a side aiming to play in Europe next season.

Nice pitch, shame about the football. The reverse has been true for most of this season at Goodison Park, but the best Everton performance yesterday came from Bob Lennon, the head groundsman, whose workforce ripped up a mudheap and replaced it inside a fortnight with a surface on which Ronnie O'Sullivan would have excelled. Unfortunately for the Goodison faithful, Everton played like a team of snooker players rather than a side aiming to play in Europe next season.

The result still leaves David Moyes' team eight points clear in fourth place, but the manner of this defeat will give encouragement to those hoping to dislodge them from the final Champions' League slot. Everton's football never flowed and Brad Friedel, the Blackburn goalkeeper, was hardly tested.

The performance was particularly disappointing after Everton's excellent win at Aston Villa last time out. "Last week nine or 10 players played at the top of their ability," Moyes said. "Today we had quite a few who played below their best."

It was a poor match all round and the only players to emerge with credit were in Blackburn colours. Mark Hughes' men defended stoutly, with Andy Todd and Ryan Nelsen rock-solid in the centre of the back four, and in the elegant Steven Reid they had a player who always looked comfortable on the ball in midfield. The result moves Blackburn and seven points clear of the relegation zone, which had become uncomfortably close after three of the four teams beneath them picked up points over the weekend.

The winning goal came after 71 minutes, when Reid sent Jonathan Stead clear down the inside-right channel. Stead, a first-half substitute for the injured Paul Dickov, beat Nigel Martyn with a sweet shot from 20 yards which sneaked inside the far post. His celebrations said everything about a player who had failed to find the target in 19 previous Premiership appearances this campaign. Stead had scored the only goal of the game in this fixture last season, when he made an immediate impact with six goals in 13 appearances following his transfer from Huddersfield Town.

A lamentable first half was not helped by early injuries to key players on both sides. Dickov, Blackburn's lone striker, departed after 14 minutes and Everton's Mikel Arteta went nine minutes later. Duncan Ferguson came on as Moyes switched from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 and Everton fell into the trap of firing the long ball to their big striker rather than play through midfield.

Arteta was injured by a crunching tackle from Aaron Mokoena, one of several fouls in the first 45 minutes which might have resulted in cautions. Both sides adopted a robust approach and it was a surprise that David Weir, the Everton captain, was the only player before half-time to see yellow, after a nasty challenge on Reid.

Blackburn had two good chances to take an early lead. After seven minutes Reid flicked on Morten Gamst Pedersen's long throw from the left and with Nigel Martyn beaten it needed a goal-line clearance by Alessandro Pistone. Within a minute Nils-Eric Johansson's header sent Dickov clear, but Martyn hurled himself at the striker's feet to keep the ball out. Dickov injured his knee and departed six minutes later.

Everton's only meaningful chance from open play in the first half fell to Marcus Bent, who broke through the middle but was unable to beat Friedel. Two off-target headers by Ferguson and two Lee Carsley free-kicks which went close were the best Everton offered after the break, when Blackburn's breakaways generally looked the more likely source of a goal.

"We've been good defensively for a long time and I don't think we've been getting the credit that we deserved in that respect," Hughes said after the game. "We've been struggling for goals all year, but defensively I feel we're a match for anyone." Hughes was delighted for Stead. "It's been a difficult season for him," Hughes said. "He made a real impact last year but he's struggled with his game and his confidence this year. He took his chance here. He ran his socks off and scored a great goal."

Goal: Stead (71) 0-1.

Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Yobo, Weir, Pistone (McFadden, 75); Arteta (Ferguson, 23), Carsley, Cahill, Osman, Kilbane; Bent. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Stubbs, Plessis.

Blackburn Rovers (4-2-3-1): Friedel; Neill, Todd, Nelsen, Johansson; Mokoena, Flitcroft; Thompson, Reid, Pedersen; Dickov (Stead, 14). Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Short, Tugay, Gallagher.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Everton Weir, Carsley, Cahill; Blackburn Mokoena, Stead.

Man of the match: Reid.

Attendance: 32,406.

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