Everton v Stoke
Frustration reigned at Goodison Park as Stoke City won a rank bad game of football by a solitary goal.
Robert Huth’s early strike – stabbed home from close range and predictably created by a set play – proved the difference as Everton ran out of ideas against the Potters.
The German struck in the 15th minute and the remaining 75 elapsed with a set pattern. Everton with all the ball, Stoke defending stoically.
Yet despite all that possession, there was never a feeling the visitors were hanging on and the Blues couldn't find a way of breaking down their unadventurous but determined opponents.
Try as they might they couldn’t stretch the game or open up Stoke, whose ultra-disciplined shape and stout defending ultimately proved insurmountable for David Moyes’ side.
Before the game the Blues paid tribute to former captain Gary Speed with the playing of the Welsh national anthem and a minute’s rapturous applause. It was a poignant moment, a fitting nod to a great player and his dad Roger’s tears touched everyone.
Understandably, the match began amid an emotional vacuum inside Goodison as people gathered their thoughts and it took a while for the home crowd to warm up.
Speed was not the only loss to the footballing world this past week with the Brazilian great Socrates also sadly passing away at the age of 57.
The curly-haired maestro was a purist, one of the game’s thinkers. He often described football as ‘art’ and lamented how some modern matches had become ‘battlefields’.
You can probably guess what he would have made of Stoke’s bludgeoning style, behemothic defenders and unapologetically crude methods.
But four straight seasons in the top flight, an FA Cup final and a Europa League place tells its own story, and their ruthless exploitation of set pieces could have seen them out of sight by the halfway point.
As it was, the Blues only found themselves contending with what is becoming a customary one-goal deficit.
Glenn Whelan’s corner was half cleared and when Dean Whitehead pumped it back into the mixer, the hulking Huth was there to turn it home.
Another corner soon wreaked havoc in the Blues’ defence and Ryan Shotton was inches away from doubling the lead at the back stick.
And with the hosts looking decidedly shaky a further dead ball, this time a free-kick, saw Ryan Shawcross head narrowly over the bar.
The Blues had made just one change from the team that emerged victorious at the Reebok Stadium last weekend with Apostolos Vellios replacing the absent Louis Saha up front, but the young forward was a peripheral figure in an excruciating first half.
Everton huffed and puffed but their vulnerability from set plays meant they were lucky to still be in the game as they retreated to the dressing room.
The pattern changed little after the break as Stoke sat on their lead, the Blues having all the possession but rarely managing to stretch the game or get in behind.
Frustration was everywhere. Fellaini had to deal with Shawcross groping him every time he went up for a corner, Goodison seethed when the Toffees were denied a blatant flag kick on the hour and Coleman beat the turf with his fist after miscontrolling.
Very few of the close decisions seemed to be going for the hosts and malcontent brewed in the stands.
Cahill was throwing his weight around, well, directly into the head of Thomas Sorensen to be precise. The ball was there to be won and the collision led to the groggy Dane being withdrawn five minutes later.
Asmir Begovic replaced him, while Moyes called for Jack Rodwell, Denis Stracqualursi and Magaye Gueye.
The Blues continued to bang on the door and finally a couple of chances arrived as Rodwell’s half volley was frantically blocked and a Leighton Baines centre flashed across the face of goal with John Heitinga inches away from connecting.
The Dutchman followed through into the goal and the violent shoeing he gave the net just about summed up how he, his teammates and all the Evertonians were feeling.