When the Aston Villa team-sheet was handed out before kick-off, it appeared as if David O'Leary was offering Wayne Rooney another 18th birthday present by selecting Dion Dublin at centre-back. It was a different story come full time, after the 34-year-old striker-cum-defender had given the boy wonder nothing more than a lesson in the art of defending.
Time after time, Dublin made a clean tackle or got an important touch when it was needed, as he marshalled the defence with great aplomb. With Alpay Ozalan gone from the club and, one suspects, the country after his very public fracas with David Beckham in Istanbul, O'Leary seems to have found the perfect long-term replacement for the Turkish defender.
"I got to the year dot because you don't have to run a lot at the back," the Irishman smiled. "No seriously, Dion's a good organiser and I've told him he can extend his career by making that position his own." The fact that Dublin was the man of the match said everything about his masterful performance, but also a great deal about the game's lack of any real quality. Rooney will certainly be hoping for considerably more excitement at his birthday bash next week at Aintree.
Everton offered little going forward, while the home side lack a creative force in midfield, who could make the difference in tight contests. O'Leary's right hand was heavily bandaged following a nasty tumble off his bicycle at the training ground in mid-week, but it is his Aston Villa side who are in greatest danger of free-falling, down the Premiership table.
Truth be told, neither side deserved all three points yesterday. No two teams have met more often in the top flight of English football, and that familiarity was all too evident early on. It took 17 minutes for the first chance to materialise, a good near-post header from Kevin Campbell that the Villa goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, did brilliantly to parry on to the crossbar.
Villa's response was almost immediate as Gareth Barry fed Peter Whittingham down the left flank before the teenager sent a low cross into the area. Juan Pablo Angel was quickest to react but his deft touch took the ball just wide of Nigel Martyn's goal. Minutes later, Whittingham had a go himself, cutting inside Tony Hibbert and unleashing a right-foot drive which Martyn gathered with ease.
Villa were beginning to take control and created their best opening of the first half on 36 minutes when Jlloyd Samuel played a neat ball into Darius Vassell's feet, on the edge of the Everton area, for the England man to tee-up the on-rushing Whittingham. The ensuing shot was crisp and beat the diving Martyn, but rebounded off the far post to safety.
It came as no surprise when the ageing Mark Kinsella was removed from the action at half-time to make way for the far more industrious Thomas Hitzl-sperger. The German made an immediate impact, delivering a series of dangerous corners and driving the team forward at every opportunity. His 59th minute skimmer was only just wide of the target, but still that all important opening goal eluded O'Leary's men.
Instead, it was Rooney who very nearly gave the visitors an unexpected lead, but he could not quite reach Kevin Kilbane's low, left-foot cross. "Wayne didn't have much to feed on," was the honest verdict of Everton's assistant manager Alan Irvine. "It was not his day." The home crowd's growing frustration turned to anguish when Duncan Ferguson was thrown on for the final 20 minutes. How would Dublin cope, they wondered? With his customary assuredness, was the emphatic answer.
Aston Villa 0 Everton 0