Turning the Premiership table on its head, West Bromwich Albion enhanced their prospects of avoiding relegation and dented Everton's hopes of reaching the Champions' League at The Hawthorns yesterday. Zoltan Gera's headed goal midway through the second half silenced the Mersey sound and prompted a Black Country cacophony.
Albion, who remain unbeaten at home since their 5-0 rout by Liverpool on Boxing Day, have now taken 17 of the 36 points available since that night. Their first back-to-back victories in the top flight since September 2002 have raised them to the dizzy heights of 18th place for the first time since Bryan Robson's return in November. Not only are they level with Southampton and ahead of Crystal Palace, but they have a point more than they gained under Gary Megson in the whole of 2002-03.
In stark contrast, Everton have mustered a mere 11 from the same number of games, seven of which have been lost. Having had the opportunity to move 10 points clear of Liverpool a month ago, David Moyes' side lead their neighbours by a single point in the tussle for fourth place.
After making a habit of eking out 1-0 wins this season, Everton could have few complaints about being on the receiving end yesterday. Albion twice shook Nigel Martyn's woodwork, a 10th-minute header by Thomas Gaardsoe twanging the crossbar and a drive by Martin Albrechtsen hitting the post 20 minutes from the end.
By then, Albion had their precious goal. A beautifully worked effort it was, too, totally out of keeping with the mediocrity of an opening hour which, to borrow from the Tommy Docherty book of quips, started badly and then fell away. Paul Robinson began the move by winning a header, which he directed to Jonathan Greening. The midfielder had two defenders in close proximity, yet still managed to deliver a cross which found Gera out-jumping Joseph Yobo to score.
Five minutes later, Gera could have cost his team at least two points. The Hungarian tugged at Tim Cahill's shirt as the Everton man raced on to Kevin Kilbane's back-header. The contact was clear-cut, if minimal; Cahill fell like a wounded gazelle. Graham Poll, whose refereeing had been uncharacteristically littered with errors, evidently deemed it a dive. However, he declined to produce the second yellow card that would have curtailed the Australian's part in proceedings.
Moyes pointed out, not unreasonably, that Cahill was hardly likely to have thrown himself to the turf with only Russell Hoult to beat and with the likelihood of red card. "I've seen it again, and their player does grab him," said the Everton manager, who also confirmed that James Beattie, his £6m striker, would miss "the next three or four weeks" after damaging medial ligaments in training.
Pressed about the decline which threatens to let Liverpool slip past them, Moyes played the straightest Scottish bat since Mike Denness. "We've never said anything about the Champions' League," he insisted. "We only ever set out to have the best season we could have, and we're in a very good position. There's no pressure on us because no one expected us to be here. We're disappointed we didn't get something here, but I think we deserved to. It certainly wasn't for want of desire or determination."
Robson has never had any such qualms about stating Albion's aim, which is to defy the odds and stay up. What his counterpart viewed as "a lapse in concentration" he saw as evidence of Gera's aerial prowess. "It was a great goal, and a very important one for us," he said. "We knew it would be a hard fight and the lads were up for it. A month ago we would have wilted when opponents pumped the ball into our area the way Everton did in the last 10 minutes."
Everton can take heart from the fact that their next three matches are all at home, with eminently winnable fixtures against Crystal Palace and Birmingham City either side of the visit of Manchester United. Albion's are away, at Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Middlesbrough. In their current mood, it would be folly to write them off.
Goal: Gera (63) 1-0.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Hoult; Albrechtsen (Scimeca, 89), Gaardsoe, Clement, Robinson; Gera, Wallwork, Richardson (Moore, 86), Greening; Campbell, Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Chaplow, Kanu, Earnshaw.
Everton (4-5-1): Martyn; Hibbert, Weir, Stubbs (Watson, 85), Pistone (Yobo, h-t); Osman, Arteta, Carsley (Ferguson, 75), Cahill, Kilbane; Bent. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Plessis.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
Booked: West Bromwich Richardson. Everton Cahill, Arteta.
Man of the match: Gera.
Attendance: 26,805.Reuse content