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PHIL JAGIELKA believes Everton’s ability to keep winning without key men like Marouane Fellaini proves they’re genuine contenders for Europe.
The Blues’ 2-1 Boxing Day victory over Wigan Athletic at Goodison was their second successive win without the suspended Belgian international, an absence their manager had previously warned they may struggle to overcome.
But Jagielka – who sealed three points for his side with a second-half header which was his first goal of the season – insists they have enough strength in depth to keep in the hunt for the top four.
He said: “Felli has been a massive player for us for the first part of the season, but we’ve done OK while he’s been suspended so far which really bodes well.
“The manager knows he has a couple of options he can try and they’ve worked in the last two games. Victor has come in and give us that presence up there, Naisy has done really well when he came on.
“Felli is a big talent and when we heard we were losing him for three games we knew it wouldn’t be ideal - but at this rate he might struggle to get back in!”
An 82nd minute strike by Wigan’s Arouna Kone ensured a nervy ending for the hosts, and meant Everton have now conceded in their last 14 Premier League games. But while their vice-captain accepts that is far from ideal, he believes their priority must be remaining a threat going forward.
“We’ve scored enough goals to keep us in the top end of the table,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve conceded a lot but it’s just the frustration that we’ve conceded in most games. As much as the manager loves his clean sheets it’s more important we’re creating and scoring chances, because if we go behind in games and can’t score the team is going to struggle.
“We’re not happy with not keeping clean sheets but we’re much happier winning games 2-1 than drawing 0-0.
“As for my goal, it was the winner so it was nice. It was a good ball in from Phil. I know I need to chip in more so just before the end f the year I’m glad to have sneaked a goal in.
“I think the way the rain came down for long periods it was always going to be a bit of a hectic game and it was decent to go 2-0 up. We would have liked to have kept a clean sheet but as it is three points on Boxing Day is a fantastic result.”
Liverpool are ready to step up their interest in England keeper Jack Butland.
The young shot-stopper, 19, is set to be sold by cash-strapped Championship City next month.
Liverpool and Merseyside rivals Everton are both very keen.
But the Reds lead the chase and Butland knows he may have to be sacrificed by Brum.
Birmingham hope to stave off interest in their prized asset by agreeing a takeover to save the club.
But talks with two Hong Kong consortiums have faltered and ex-QPR chairman Gianni Paladini cannot agree a deal.
Now more player sales are likely this month at St Andrews with owner Carson Yeung's assets still frozen pending a money-laundering trial.
Blues supremo Peter Pannu admitted: "We need to ensure that we do not go in to administration by raising some funds.
"It maybe the case that further disposal will have to be made to maintain the cash flow."
If Liverpool get Butland they may consider selling Pepe Reina to long-term suitors Arsenal.
England internationals Leon Osman and Phil Jagielka scored the crucial goals as Everton maintained their mid-season momentum
Wigan fans may have arrived in tropical fruit fancy dress... but you didn’t have to be bananas to leave the Boxing Day fireside to watch this game, despite the filthy weather.
With the rain driving off the Mersey, it was never going to be a test of pure skill, but just about every other quality was on display in a warming, old-fashioned blood and thunder Christmas contest that even offered a pantomime villain in the form of referee Lee Mason.
Better than sales shopping then, and most importantly for the home support who came out in numbers, Everton survived drama and tension right to the end to cling tenaciously onto a slender lead and maintain their grip on the coattails of the teams at the top of the Premier League.
They also survived what undoubtedly would have been a half time dressing down from their manager David Moyes, after a first period in which the visitors showed they now have some real physical presence to underpin their usual technical approach.
Given the circumstances - and perhaps the weight of the Christmas pud - this was a huge win for the home team, their third in four matches during an impressive December run that suggests they are now serious contenders for a Champions League place.
Everton now have 68 points in the calendar year, which is the form of a top four side, and if they can repeat their usual run in the second half of the season over the past few years, then they can start thinking about sitting at Europe’s top table.
They did it thanks to the grit typified by their skipper Phil Neville, who produced his usual qualities of guts and leadership on his 500th Premier League appearance, to ensure he reached the remarkable milestone in style as Everton briefly reclaimed fourth place.
And they did it thanks to similar qualities in their England defender Phil Jagielka, who led brilliantly from the back, and even found time to score - quite magnificently - the goal that proved to be the winner.
According to Moyes, they also required a bit of good fortune in otherwise poor referee Mason getting the big decision right, when everyone else on the pitch missed a dive by visiting striker Shaun Maloney after Leon Osman’s challenge.
“Sitting in the dug-out I thought ‘this looks like a penalty’, but you watch it again and there is a bit of doubt about it on the replay..and we’ll take that,” the Blues boss admitted.
That the decision came at such a crucial time in the game on the hour mark, with Everton leading through Osman’s deflected goal after a second half rally, perhaps explains the emotional reaction of Wigan boss Roberto Martinez afterwards.
His side were already painfully unfortunate when, on 52 minutes Osman wriggled free and sent a tame left foot shot goalwards, only to see the ball deflect outrageously from Gary Caldwell’s arm and trickle past the wrong-footed Ali Al Habsi.
That combined with what appeared a good penalty shout sent him ballistic, but the reality was Maloney was on his way down before any contact was made, and the referee got the decision right.
Indeed, he should have booked the Wigan player... and maybe even sent off Jean Beausejour for manhandling him when refusing the penalty. As it was, Everton made Wigan pay soon afterwards when Jagileka rose to meet Neville’s cross and plant a fine header into the roof of the net.
There was still time for Everton’s defence to play pat-a-cake and gift Arouna Kone a goal eight minutes from time, but the reality was the home side were deserving of victory for an impressive second half display that should have brought more goals.
They are now well placed to make their traditional New Year push, and it has Moyes dreaming of bigger things to come. “We needed it today, we needed this win to give us some momentum at an important time of the year. We are in a good position now, and we’ll see what we’re made of.”
As for Wigan, well they will need their own traditional New Year surge to climb to safety, but combined with their new found physical approach you suspect they will do so.
Hard-luck tales bring added torment in the relegation zone and they are mounting for Roberto Martínez and Wigan. For the second festive-season game in succession the Wigan manager was left bemoaning a crucial penalty decision as Leon Osman, with a fortuitous goal at one end and a reprieve at the other, gave Everton the winning edge.
On Saturday it was Theo Walcott's tumble that incensed Martínez and cost Wigan a point against Arsenal. On Boxing Day it was Shaun Maloney's fall in the Everton area that stirred similar emotions in the Spaniard as his team were denied a valuable draw on Merseyside. Martínez was right to lament an outcome that did not reflect the Wigan performance, but to pin it on the referee Lee Mason's interpretation of Osman's challenge on Maloney was debatable. The Scotland international appeared to be going to ground before making contact with the Everton midfielder's knee. Arguably, the real source of Martínez's ire was the time-honoured tradition of borderline decisions going against the struggling club.
"The penalty was clear and it was the reason we didn't get the positive result that we deserved," said the Wigan manager, whose team are firmly ensconced in the bottom three but, just like last season, appear to have the class and belief to mount a recovery. "You will see the contact clearly on the replays. Maloney is past, Osman doesn't follow the player, and sticks his leg out. You could hear the contact from where I was on the bench and I was bemused he didn't give the decision.
"The reaction of Osman tells you everything. He ran away thinking he got away with it. He wasn't angry, he didn't try to say that Maloney had dived. Contact was very clear and I couldn't believe it. As an experienced referee you know that he didn't need to dive because he was in a great position one on one with the keeper, so that's why the decision was a real surprise."
David Moyes, who in contrast to Martínez was able to savour the result above the performance, was closer to the truth with his assessment of an incident that came six minutes after Osman had put Everton ahead. He said: "From the dugout I thought it was a penalty but when you look at it again there is debate over whether there is contact or not."
Everton have now taken 68 points in this calendar year, the highest total since their last title-winning year of 1987, but this was a scrappy display that was influenced more by Osman's intelligence when moved into central midfield than his outstretched leg on Maloney.
Aside from howling for a penalty when a series of corners produced the customary wrestling matches, Everton rarely threatened a breakthrough in a first half as grim as the weather. Their control of the game was frequently undermined by a careless final pass and it was Wigan, with their five-man midfield stifling Everton, who carried the greater threat.
The second half, however, brought a change in urgency and fortune from the home side who took the lead when Osman was allowed time to check on to his left foot outside the Wigan area. The England international's shot lacked power but took a vicious deflection off the inside of Gary Caldwell's arm and completely wrong-footed Ali al-Habsi in goal.
Thomas Hitzlsperger struck the Wigan bar from 30-yards as Everton looked to dominate, but the threat from Martínez's men remained. Mason's refusal to award Maloney the penalty prompted a furious reaction from the Wigan players, however – Jean Beausejour was booked for man-handling the referee – and their many banana-clad supporters.
Phil Jagielka appeared to put beyond Wigan with a towering header into the top corner from a cross by Phil Neville, making the 500th league appearance of his career. But Arouna Koné ensured a nervous finale for Everton after Franco Di Santo's shot had spun into the air and despite appearing to use an arm, the Ivory Coast forward squeezed between Sylvain Distin and Leighton Baines to score from close range.
Moyes added: "We have drawn a lot of games this season and in the last five or six minutes it looked as though it was going to be tight, but we had opportunities to extend our lead at 2-0. Wigan are a good team, they don't get the credit they deserve for how they play, and this is a good win."