EVERTON 1 (Yakubu 63) – STOKE CITY 0.
One thing we can safely say for this game, without fear of criticism, is that it lived down to expectations: Stoke were going to string four players built like rugby prop-forwards across their back four – tick; they came to defend, in depth, with no attacking ambitions whatsoever, so long as the scores remained even – tick; it would require patience and maybe a touch of luck to break them down – tick; it would not be pretty – tick. Thankfully, the only prediction that we got wrong was that we didn’t have to watch Rory Delap trundle up the touchline, dry the ball on his shirt, and launch one of his mortar shells into the penalty area.
With Pennant and Kenwyne Jones recovered from their “flu-like symptoms” (maybe they had flu) Stoke were more or less at full strength and with Arteta passed fit and Rodwell on the bench, after resuming training earlier in the week, this was about as strong a team as Moyes could field minus the long-term injured Fellaini, Osman and Anichebe. Everton completely dominated possession during the first half, but created only one clear-cut chance, which Yakubu fluffed. Stoke were largely unruffled, kept ten men behind the ball and made sure that when Everton’s two most creative players, Arteta and Pienaar, had possession, they were double marked. Distin especially, but also Jagielka looked solid at the back.
Just as Goodison was beginning to grumble, as only she can, and following a disallowed goal by Tuncay, David Moyes made the tactical change which helped to turn the game; with an hour gone he took off Seamus Coleman for Louis Saha. The introduction of a second forward, and one of real quality, rather than the out-of-his-depth, Jermaine Beckford, had an immediate impact. Instantly the Blues looked sharper and more cohesive. Steven Pienaar attacking down the right wing left Collins for dead, and, although his cross was poor, Yakubu nicked the ball and managed to set up Tim Cahill who’s instant shot hit the post. The burly Nigerian was first to the rebound but still had plenty to do, he beat a defender before smashing the ball, in true Yakubu style, into the roof of the net from an acute angle. In truth a far more difficult chance taken than one he spurned in the first half when he was released by Pienaar but fired tamely straight at Bergovic in the Stoke goal.
Not that it was game over, far from it, Pulis introduced Pennant and Whelan, and Stoke started to make inroads, aided by an Everton backline, who, for the last fifteen minutes defended far too deeply. It would not have been a surprise had Stoke nicked an equalizer in the closing minutes.
Yakubu was superb, his link-up play faultless, his passing, long and short, was accurate and crisp, and he created and took his chance with power and certainty. Further back we would pick out Johnny Heitinga who is now getting back into gear after a slow start to the season. His distribution is superb, his interventions always timely as he prompts and probes. One area of concern is the occasional defensive frailty of Leighton Baines; he allowed Tuncay to bundle his way past him and prod home a disallowed goal, which on another day would have stood, and did not seem to be fully aware of the danger. It’s something we have noted before; in the World Cup warm-up game at Wembley against Mexico, Leighton’s poor defending was clearly in evidence, the national newspapers the next morning gave him an average rating of just 3 out of 10. We recognize that he is hugely talented going forward, but would just ask that he sharpens up inside his own twelve yard box. Next weekend it’s the short journey to Blackpool with the squad further strengthened by another week of hard training for the returning Jack Rodwell and Louis Saha. The last time this writer was at Bloomfield Road was in September 1970 when Everton won 2-0 thanks to goals from Jimmy Husband and the hugely underrated Johnny Morrissey.
EVERTON (4-1-4-1): Howard; Neville ©, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Heitinga; Coleman (Saha 62), Arteta, Cahill, Pienaar; Yakubu (Bilyaletdinov 86)
Unused subs: Mucha, Hibbert, Beckford, Gueye, Rodwell
STOKE CITY (4-4-1-1): Begovic; Huth, Shawcross ©, Faye, Collins; Walters (Pennant 73), Wilson (Whelan 77), Whitehead, Etherington; Tuncay; Jones
Unused subs: Nash, Higginbotham, Gudjohnsen, Delap, Wilkinson
Referee: Lee Probert
Gate: 35,513 Change from last season -1,240 (3.3%)