AEK Athens v Everton
Everton recorded a famous victory over AEK Athens to secure a passage through to the knockout stages of the Europa League.
With a team already ravaged by injury, The Toffees lost three more during the game but there were heroes in Blue everywhere – none more so than Jose Baxter, Shane Duffy and Seamus Coleman.
Everton took the lead after just 6 minutes. Tim Cahill won the ball in the air allowing Jo to hold it up before slipping a perfectly weighted pass through to Bilyaletdinov who produced a splendid finish.
Three minutes later though, David Moyes suffered yet more injury misery when Dan Gosling pulled up near the half-way line clutching the back of his leg. Jose Baxter came on but unbelievably there was worse to follow.
16 minutes had elapsed when Sylvain Distin was the next to go. He, too, was left holding his thigh and that gave Moyes no other option than to offer 17-year old Irishman Shane Duffy his senior debut.
Duffy’s central defensive partner, Tony Hibbert, was then cautioned after what looked a well-timed hard challenge. Moyes was livid as he roared his protestations from the touchline.
The saturated surface made a passing game all but impossible but Everton certainly retained the ball with more efficiency than the hosts with Baxter, in particular, having a fine game.
AEK showed their threat on 32 minutes when Panagiotis Tachtsidis tried his luck from distance but Howard was able to dive low to his left and, wisely in the conditions, firmly palm the ball away to safety.
As the half wore on, AEK came into it a lot more and began to squeeze Everton back into the final third of the field.
AEK started the second period quite well, too, but this was another display rich in commitment and spirit from Everton and by and large Tim Howard was well protected by his defence.
A driving run by Coleman was illegally thwarted to give Everton a real chance with a direct free-kick from 25 yards but Jo scuffed his delivery and the ball bobbled harmlessly wide.
On 58 minutes the impressive Youssouf Hersi fired in a shot from the edge of the penalty area that Howard was relieved to see flash narrowly past the upright and at the other end a good cross-field pass from Cahill was collected by Jo and his well-struck low drive was very well saved by Sebastian Saja. Amazingly, given the presence of a nearby goal-line assistant, a goal-kick rather than a corner was awarded!
This was developing into an intriguing contest in spite of the appalling conditions - with the odd baffling refereeing decision thrown into the mix as well.
The over-worked buggy that was ferrying the wounded players from the pitch to the dressing room was called for again in the 72nd minute when Jo fell awkwardly. At least on this occasion, David Moyes had an experienced replacement in Yakubu.
With news filtering through that Benfica were leading, Everton knew that a win would ensure qualification through to the knockout stage but they were hugely indebted to Baxter in the 75th minute. A shot from Gustavo Manduca beat Howard but the teenager was perfectly place to hack the ball off the line.
Steven Pienaar then raced away down the right after Everton had cleared the ensuing corner and played Fellaini in, but the Belgian chipped the ball too high and the chance was gone.
The closing stages were frantic as AEK pushed hard for a leveller and Everton looked to counter-attack whenever possible.
The final whistle was greeted enthusiastically by supporters, staff and players alike. This was a terrific victory.