Merson magic lifts Villa gloom

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It took a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. With one moment of inspiration, a first display of genuine quality, Paul Merson transformed this otherwise forgettable fixture thanks to a wonderful goal with the final kick of normal time.

It took a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. With one moment of inspiration, a first display of genuine quality, Paul Merson transformed this otherwise forgettable fixture thanks to a wonderful goal with the final kick of normal time.

From 35 yards he glanced goalwards, saw the previously under-employed Paul Gerrard off his line, and struck a glorious inch-perfect chip to take the points. That his side did not deserve to leave Goodison Park with such a boost to their challenge for a European place is immaterial - games deserve to be won by such incidents.

With admirable honesty John Gregory, the Aston Villa manager, said: "The awful conditions helped because the ball was swerving in the air and there was nothing the goalkeeper could have done to stop it. You can always nick something if you keep a clean sheet and the goal lifted some of the gloom surrounding a game which was never very pretty."

The home side, who were on top in the second period, could not match Merson's brilliance, but their attacking problems are well chronicled, with key players still languishing in the treatment room. Yet, in the early stages, it was Everton's defence that was more likely to worry their manager Walter Smith.

Julian Joachim, partnering Gilles de Bilde, twice made Abel Xavier check his studs as he left the Portuguese international looking for cover. And then De Bilde, on loan from Sheffield Wednesday, powered a shot just wide.

Despite the inauspicious start, the guile of Paul Gascoigne and the physical presence of Thomas Gravesen, pushed into a striking role, combined to create opportunities for the home side. Gascoigne, though, was forced off the pitch before the interval with a thigh injury.

Danny Cadamarteri took his place but the switch appeared to have little effect on the shape of the game as the midfielders continued to slug it out for territorial rights in a packed zone of the pitch, while the respective defences, seeing the cramped conditions before them, too often bypassed the niceties of the game - and their own players - preferring instead to lump the ball forward more in hope than expectation.

There was some welcome late excitement to break the mould of the opening period when Campbell's firm header from a Gravesen cross forced a fine tip-over by the alert David James. At the other end Merson was denied a penalty after appearing to have been bundled over by David Weir.

But these thrills, like those of the pre-match pyrotechnics display, were fleeting and, though Everton picked up the tempo after the break, quality constructive play remained generally elusive.

Gary Naysmith, in his first start at Goodison Park, was unlucky with a gutsy header from a Mark Pembridge cross which James pushed on to his right-hand post, but there was even less to cheer for supporters of Aston Villa - until the Merson strike. "One shot, one goal," Gregory joked.

Perhaps the nature of the game was to be expected. Inconsistency has dogged both sides, neither able to fulfil the anticipated returns of pre-season investments. Conditions hardly helped with patches of standing water on the pitch, but that would be to paper over the cracks of what came before - Everton have just one victory at home, their visitors the same on their travels.

An unsavoury incident provided one of the key talking points of the game when Everton's David Unsworth scythed down Mark Delaney in a challenge surely deserving a red rather than the yellow card shown. James, too, was in the wars as the game took on an unpleasant hue in the closing stages, emerging with a facial gash after denying Campbell a header, but he still fashioned an outstanding late save from Pembridge.

Goal: Merson (90) 0-1.

Everton (3-5-2): Gerrard; Abel Xavier, Weir, Unsworth (Tal, 74); Watson (Gemmill, 62), Gascoigne (Cadamarteri, 37), Hughes, Pembridge, Naysmith; Campbell, Gravesen. Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Moore.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Alpay, Southgate, Barry; Stone (Delaney, 59), Taylor, Merson, Boateng, Wright; De Bilde (Vassell, 74), Joachim. Substitutes not used: Ginola, Hendrie, Enckelman (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Everton: Unsworth, Naysmith, Abel Xavier. Aston Villa: Boateng, Vassell.

Man of the match: Southgate.

Attendance: 27,670.

Comments