SOUTHAMPTON 0 – EVERTON 0
Behind the nil–nil scoreline lurks another goalless draw, the personal one achieved by Nikica Jelavic; the symmetry of his first-half goal-line clearance and second-half fluffed chance neatly encapsulating this game. Everton only emerged from a chilly night at St Mary’s undefeated thanks to some excellent work by Tim Howard, some last ditch defending, and profligacy in front of goal by Southampton in general and their centre-forward Lambert in particular.
That the Blues were outplayed during the first-half by this workmanlike but limited team, tells that this was just about the worst forty-five minutes witnessed in more than a year. Ponderous and toothless, Everton were epitomised by Stephen Pienaar, who, and we can offer him no lower praise, played like Wayne Rooney does when he has one of his mysterious off days; to say his first touch was that of the blacksmith is probably unfair on farriers, while his normally quick feet operated with all the deftness of a puppet. Seamus Coleman was a shadow of the superb wingback we saw a week earlier against Swansea. That said it is unfair to single out any individuals, because, Howard aside, this was a miasma which smothered the whole team. No rhythm, Nikica Jelavic isolated, Fellaini forced to come deep and Southampton goalkeeper Artur Boruc a spectator; David Moyes will not have been short of subject matter in his half-time team talk.
The Everton that emerged for the second-half were certainly an improvement but it wasn’t until Coleman suffered what looked like a recurrence of his thigh strain just before the hour, which prompted the arrival of Victor Anichebe with Phil Neville slotting in at right back, that the Toffees registered a substantial improvement, which paid off almost immediately as Anichebe squared the ball to Jelavic, only for the striker to completely miscue his attempted shot. Jelavic, who has not scored a Premier League goal since December 9, was substituted shortly afterwards, with Kevin Mirallas taking his place after six weeks out with a hamstring injury. With Anichebe now forging through the middle and Mirallas playing just off him the Blues looked a different proposition. Anichebe was lively and pulled a reaction save from Boruc, while Mirallas oozed class with his every touch. Instantly Everton looked more penetrative and the Belgian’s impact might have been sensational as he skilfully cushioned an Anichebe pass and left his marker for dead; a sublime piece of skill unfortunately followed by a more prosaic blast over the bar.
It was telling too that in the last ten minutes or so it was Southampton who pushed forward and Everton who assumed the role of visitors holding out for a point. Throughout all this one figure stood resolute; timing his tackles to perfection, intercepting, clearing, exhorting. A point isn’t the birthday present Phil Neville would have wanted, but he more than any other outfield player earned it.
A disappointing, tired performance. One hundred and eighty minutes without a goal, the previously peerless finishing of Jelavic suddenly gone and yet another opportunity to make up ground on Spurs and Arsenal spurned. If Anichebe is fully fit we would not be surprised to see him start in place of Jelavic for the FA Cup tie at Bolton on Saturday. He and Kevin Mirallas are capable of reinvigorating Everton’s league campaign and energizing their FA Cup quest.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Shaw; Cork, Schneiderlin; Puncheon (De Ridder 87), Ramirez (Steven Davis 71), Do Prado (Rodriguez 62); Lambert©
Unused subs: Kelvin Davis, Fox, Richardson, Chaplow.
Booked: Hooiveld, Schneiderlin.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman (Anichebe 58), Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Neville©, Osman; Naismith, Fellaini, Pienaar; Jelavic (Mirallas 66)
Unused subs: Mucha, Heitinga, Oviedo, Hitzlsperger, Duffy.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick