Fowler fails in attempt to stop Everton marching on

Everton 2 - Manchester City 1

Everton's unexpected glory march continues, thanks to a well-orchestrated response from Marcus Bent and Tim Cahill, who both ended their long-running goal droughts.

But, as usual on Merseyside, the talking point was the former Anfield striker Robbie Fowler, who did his fair share to wind up the Everton fans and was booked into the bargain.

On top of that, there was a double-quick red card to add more spice to the occasion. City's Christian Negouai had only been on the pitch two minutes, after replacing Danny Mills, when he was given a red card for a foul on Bent by the referee Phil Dowd.

With all this combustible material, it was probably a wise decision by the City manager Kevin Keegan not to play Joey Barton, who had disgraced himself at the Christmas party.

On this occasion it was Fowler who took centre stage as he scored for the fourth consecutive time in recent Boxing Day fixtures. The striker may be slowing down these days, but you can always count on him for controversy back on his native soil.

The 29-year-old not only headed an equaliser in front of a packed 40,000 Goodison Park crowd, but he also inevitably rubbed it in. After cancelling out Cahill's earlier strike for Everton, Fowler was in the right place at the right time to level matters just before half-time as he bulleted home a cross from Jon Macken.

Naturally, the packed Gwladys Street end of Goodison gave him plenty of stick, chanting "Smack Head", a taunt referring to previous media speculation about some footballers' use of recreational drugs.

Fowler has always vehemently denied any personal involvement. Even so, he ran towards the Everton fans, smacking his head with a hand. It was a typical Scouser's response to provocation, but one which earned him a booking for leaving the field of play.

His manager Kevin Keegan refused to be drawn on the issue when he said: "He got his goal which he enjoyed. He has a lot of emotion and I think the ref booked him for simply leaving the field of play." Keegan denied that the police had spoken to him about Fowler's apparent provocation of the crowd, adding: "I'm not going to go down that road. I think they call him Smack Head here. They give him stick but the humour in this part of the country is legendary. You have to take it."

Of the red card, Keegan said: "I think it was poor refereeing. When the ref looks at it he will see there was a bad tackle on Sylvain Distain. The ball then broke and Christian went for it. The maximum should have been a yellow card. It's a very harsh decision and I don't think it would have been made if Bent had gone in on him in the same way."

It was no matter to Everton, whose surge to the top continues to confound the pre-season pundits. David Moyes' men have now gone seven games unbeaten and have lost only twice at home - and that is the kind of form that could yet push the Unlikely Lads into Europe.

As it is, they have reached their pre-season safety target of 40 points, one more than was achieved in the whole of last season, and deputy manager Alan Harper said: "You're always happy to get to the 40-point mark. Who knows where it will take us at the end of the season." Moyes has £10m to spend in January, and that is without the near £13m coming his way once the promised cash injection arrives from the Brunei-based Fortress Sports Fund investors.

But for now, Bent and Cahill seem to have put their barren spell behind them, to ease the Toffees' goalscoring problems. Cahill made no mistake in the 22nd minute to break his 13-game duck, from Thomas Gravesen's free-kick. The Australian was unmarked to give David James no chance with his close-range header.

In a heated second half both sides threw in everything, but it was Bent who claimed the match-winner. Again, the influential Gravesen set it up, with a delightful chip which Bent headed home despite James getting a hand to the ball. It was Bent's sixth of the season and his first in nine games, which left Everton in third place, a point below Arsenal.

Goals: Cahill (22) 1-0; Fowler (43) 1-1; Bent (62) 2-1

Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs, Pistone; Watson (Ferguson, 74), Carsley, Cahill, Gravesen (Yobo, 81), Kilbane; Bent (McFadden, 90). Substitutes not used: Wright, Naysmith.

Manchester City (4-3-3): James; Mills (Onuoha, 81), Dunne, Distain, Jordan; S Wright-Phillips, Bosvelt, Sibierski; Fowler, Macken (Negouai, 81), Anelka. Substitutes not used: Waterreus, Barton, Flood.

Booked: Manchester City: Fowler, Mills. Everton: Carsley.

Sent off: Manchester City: Negouai.

Man of the Match: Gravesen.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Attendance: 40,530.