Wolves v Everton
Punters backing 200/1 nags at Aintree today were probably more optimistic than those expecting to see a Phil Neville goal at Molineux.
The Blues skipper hasn’t scored for almost three years and, with the exception of Tony Hibbert, was probably the least fancied from open play in the Everton side.
Yet with the visitors having survived a hairy opening 20 minutes and leading through Jermaine Beckford’s header, Neville showed the class of a true thoroughbred.
The ball reached him on the edge of the box and he crashed it back across goal and into the far top corner to leave the crowd, both sets of players and a sizeable television audience stunned.
For a moment he didn’t know what to do before the comedian in him roused and he headed for the corner flag to mimic teammate Tim Cahill’s patented boxer’s celebration.
Minutes later Diniyar Bilyaletdinov landed the knockout blow.
While Neville is hardly famed for his flamboyant shooting, the Russian is.
And he left battered Wolves flat on the deck with a thunderous 30-yard effort which will nestle nicely towards the top end of his collection of stunning strikes.
It was all a far cry from an opening period when an uncharacteristically sloppy Everton side were given the run around by a team fired up by a partisan home crowd.
And with Molineux a graveyard for the rich and famous this season, there was a crackle of anticipation as the locals bayed for the Blues to be added to a list of conquests already including both Manchester clubs and Chelsea.
With that in mind it was no surprise to see the hosts come out buzzing and desperate to ease their relegation worries by taking another illustrious scalp.
Long throws and corners rained down on the Everton box as the Blues defence creaked at the seams. The visitors looked rattled, wasteful in possession and Moyes’ frustration on the sidelines was visceral.
Leon Osman cleared Steven Fletcher’s goalbound header off the line as the net gaped, while the visitors were exposed time and again only for the final ball to disappoint.
The breakthrough seemed only a matter of time but, as happens so frequently in football, it came at the end nobody was expecting.
John Heitinga was quickest to a second ball in the middle of the park and pierced the Wolves defence with the outside of his foot. The in-form Osman collected it wide right and curled a cross perfectly onto Beckford’s forehead on the edge of the six-yard box.
There was only one outcome and, as the ball hit the net, all that early gusto evaporated and the hot air gushed out of Molineux like a badly-punctured tyre.
The gravity of their plight suddenly became all the more apparent and the ruthless Blues showed them little mercy.
Wayne Hennessey denied Beckford another headed goal before the crowd was treated to a collector’s item.
The Welsh glovesman clawed away a potential own goal from George Elokobi and, as Beckford fed Neville on the edge of the box, even the most hopeful of Blues supporter wouldn’t have tipped him to dispatch it so viciously into the top corner of the Wolves' goal.
The beleaguered hosts were all over the place and Magaye Gueye raced through one-on-one but failed to mark his full debut with a goal as he was thwarted by the keeper’s legs.
The third was just around the corner, however, as Bilyaletdinov’s wonder strike all but settled matters and saw the angst and despair inside Molineux replaced by rancour and recrimination.
Corners remained their only hope of salvaging anything from the contest and Tim Howard had to be alive to keep out two headed chances.
But it was all too little too late and 20 devastating minutes in the first half were more than enough to see the Blues depart clear and deserved winners.
And there was even time for Academy product Adam Forshaw to get his first taste of the Premier League as a late substitute in a thoroughly satisfactory afternoon all round.