It has taken until December but Stoke City appear to have finally found a cure for their post-European hangovers. The Potteries club had lost four straight matches after Europa League group-stage assignments prior to arriving on Merseyside yesterday – with an aggregate score of 14-1 against – but they put that right with this hard-fought victory.
It helped that they had the boost of Robert Huth's early goal, and that Everton were so toothless that neither Thomas Sorensen, nor his replacement for the closing stages, Asmir Begovic, had a serious save to make. In the process, Stoke climbed above their hosts into eighth place to complete a "great week" for manager Tony Pulis, whose side completed their first back-to-back league wins since March, as well as securing qualification for the last 32 of the Europa League.
It is a measure of the progress Stoke have made since returning to the top flight that Pulis was able to make nine changes from the team that held Dynamo Kiev and still come away with their first win at Goodison Park since 1981. Only Huth and Ryan Shotton remained, the latter forming an unorthodox right flank with Jonathan Woodgate. It looked like a safety-first approach, particularly with the tireless Jonathan Walters dropping deep to help out his midfield, but that was understandable given the 5-0 drubbing at Bolton that followed their last European game, and it worked.
Stoke struck from their first corner, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov heading out Matthew Etherington's ball only as far as Dean Whitehead, who drove it back to goal where Huth, on the edge of the six-yard box, stuck out a foot to divert it past Tim Howard.
Pulis hailed his team's effort: "If anybody made a mistake there was always somebody working hard to cover for them. We dealt with a lot of balls into the box. I don't think our goalkeeper has had a shot to save and that's testament to the 10 outfield players."
For Everton, by contrast, this was a sobering afternoon in every sense. It began with Goodison remembering Gary Speed, a boyhood Evertonian who became club captain during his stay at the club between 1996 and '98, in an emotion-charged preamble. The Welsh anthem played as the teams took the field and Speed's father, Roger, then joined some of his former team-mates in the centre-circle.
The home crowd were subdued thereafter and with reason as Everton toiled to a fourth defeat in seven league matches at Goodison. David Moyes' men have not kept a clean sheet at home all season and do not have the resources to outshoot the opposition, not when their leading scorer is a Greek teenager with only one Premier League start to his name before yesterday. With Louis Saha sidelined, Apostolos Vellios made his first Goodison start up front alongside Tim Cahill and he made little impact.
Although Bilyaletdinov spurned an early opportunity, dragging a half-volley off target, it took until the 45th minute for Everton to threaten from one of umpteen crosses, Marouane Fellaini heading wide of the far post from Bilyaletdinov's corner.
Stoke goalkeeper Sorensen's only real trouble came when he collided with Cahill as the Australian looked to pounce on a ball Huth had unwisely let run behind him in the second half; the Dane departed on a stretcher with mild concussion.
Moyes rued his side's "inability to make, take, create [chances]", and his need for attacking reinforcements was underlined by the lumbering cameo from Argentinian Denis Stracqualursi, Moyes' cut-price replacement on deadline day in August for Ayegbeni Yakubu. The contrast with a Stoke bench that included Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller did not escape Moyes, who added: "Undoubtedly we are short. The expectations are we should always be winning these sort of games [but] Stoke have spent well in the market."
Substitutes: Everton Rodwell 6 (Bilyaletdinov, 63), Stracqualursi (Vellios, 76), Gueye (Hibbert, 83). Stoke Wilkinson 6 (Woodgate, 53), Begovic (Sorensen, 73), Etherington (Upson, 90).
Booked: Stoke Wilson.
Man of the match Huth. Match rating 5/10.
Possession: Everton 57% Stoke 43%.
Attempts on target: Everton 4 Stoke 4.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire). Attendance 33,219.