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The Salvation Army band was in full swing at the Gwladys Street end of Goodison Park before kick-off. For an hour of an enthralling fixture, one wondered if Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert was leading the orchestra, tambourine in hand, belting out the hymns to the almighty as he tried to inspire his Premier League redemption.
By full-time, with Everton completing their rousing recovery from 3-1 down, it was David Moyes who was thankful for salvaging a point from an afternoon which could easily have signalled a terminal injury in their pursuit of the Champions League.
Days such as these leave managers cursing and eulogising in equal portions. Villa’s exquisite counter-attacking belied their lowly position, but their lack of defensive resolve during a late home surge demonstrated why they need to find a backbone if they are to survive. Exhilarating going forward — their third goal was a work of art – they were ultimately undone by as trifling a matter as failing to mark at a corner in injury time.
Everton’s capacity to dig themselves out of a hole thanks to Marouane Fellaini’s double means the damage done to their top-four ambitions was minor, particularly with Chelsea losing, and psychologically the impact of their comeback will be immeasurable ahead of a tough schedule.
Of the two managers, Lambert had more cause for disappointment. “I’m sick of talking about corners,” he said.
“I thought we deserved to win because we should have been 3-1 up earlier, just after half-time. We had a great chance with Andy Weimann, but our third was a world-class goal.”
Villa arrived on Merseyside with faith in Lambert’s youthful blueprint for the future undermined by a desperate sequence of results in the present, but he will retain and recruit allies if his team keep playing like this.
The sight of Stanley Park brought back good memories. Christian Benteke was "made to look like Didier Drogba" when Villa beat Liverpool in December, according to Brendan Rodgers. Everton’s Jonny Heitinga made him look like the combined talents of George Weah and Thierry Henry after three minutes here.
With little more than a gentle trot, Benteke waltzed past the Dutch defender and sidefooted beyond Tim Howard. Villa’s defending was equally generous when Victor Anichebe restored parity on 21 minutes.
The Everton forward was able to outmuscle Ciaran Clark with his back to goal, before striking across Brad Guzan.
Villa reclaimed the lead three minutes later when Ashley Westwood’s cross found Gabriel Agbonlahor’s glancing header.
Weimann wasted a chance to extend the lead on 52 minutes, smashing over the bar after Agbonlahor’s through ball, but when the third came it was a move-of-the-season contender, Weimann and Matthew Lowton exchanging passes before a first-time cross was met with another glancing header, from Benteke.
Fellaini’s shot was deflected beyond Guzan on 70 minutes to reduce the deficit, after Moyes had thrown on two substitutes — Nikica Jelavic and Bryan Oviedo — to restore order. The Belgian headed in Leighton Baines’s corner in injury time to ensure the Salvation Army band kept playing in honour of both teams.
“Apart from the first five minutes we played well,” insisted Moyes. “I told the players at half-time we’d need four to win this game and that would have been right. It’s always disappointing not to win, but if you’d have asked me last week I’d probably have taken progress in the cup and four points in the Premier League.”
Even in a game of breathless excitement and often logic-defying unpredictability, there was still something all too familiar for Aston Villa. Set pieces continue to be their achilles heel and the loss of two points and a vital victory can be attributed to their dead-ball deficiencies. Until they can defend a corner, they are unlikely to turn one.
The clock had ticked past the 90-minute mark and Villa, procurers of two points from seven games, still led Everton, defeated once here in 10 months. Then Leighton Baines delivered a corner of trademark accuracy, Marouane Fellaini jumped highest at the near post and Villa's advantage disappeared with a nod of the Belgian's head.
Corners, taken by Bradford City's Gary Jones, cost them an appearance in the Carling Cup final. They may deprive them of their place in the Premier League, too. "I'm sick of talking about it," said Paul Lambert, though reflections on their undoing nonetheless followed. "Ron Vlaar has got him [Fellaini] and then he lost him."
In the process, a potentially season-defining result disappeared from Villa's grasp. After Tuesday's home defeat to Newcastle and the humiliation of Cup exits to Bradford and Millwall, exhilaration beckoned. Instead, coupled with Reading's victory over Sunderland, they were plunged deeper into trouble.
In a team of two halves, a front four of speed demons could not quite compensate for the frailties of a defence composed of nervous wrecks. "We always looked a threat," said Lambert. In particular, his target man did. This was a tale of two bruising, battling Belgians who ended with two goals apiece, Fellaini eventually cancelling out the efforts of Christian Benteke.
"We didn't defend well," said the Everton manager, David Moyes. He declined the invitation to single out Johnny Heitinga having substituted the Dutchman after he was partially culpable for each of Villa's goals. "They have got really good attacking players with power and pace. We didn't deal with it that well. If anyone doesn't think Benteke, [Gabriel] Agbonlahor and [Charles] N'Zogbia can't cause you problems, then they are wrong."
They were aided by Andreas Weimann, the other of Villa's eager attackers. They led after 117 seconds. Fed by N'Zogbia, Benteke powered past a lacklustre Heitinga before angling a shot beyond Tim Howard. That signalled a home siege that seemed to last for much of the following 94 minutes, interrupted only by Villa's swift, sharp counterattacking. Everton levelled through their answer to Benteke, Victor Anichebe using his bulk to hold off Vlaar and turning deftly to finish.
Yet while Benteke had struck for the fourth successive match, Agbonhalor's goals have been altogether rarer. Men who have been hit and miss were soon paired on the scoresheet, Agbonlahor netting for the third time in 39 league games by heading in Ashley Westwood's cross. Weimann, skying a golden chance Agbonlahor supplied, could have extended Villa's advantage. "We should have been 3-1 up," Lambert said.
They soon were. Matthew Lowton exchanged passes with Weimann and delivered a curling cross, Benteke plunging forward to head it in. "A world-class goal," said Lambert. Having scored twice on his previous trip to Merseyside, in December's victory at Anfield, the striker repeated the feat.
At that point, twin 3-1 wins, either side of Stanley Park, were on the cards. Instead, for the second successive Saturday, Moyes made changes that were booed. Some Everton supporters had jeered when he removed Nikica Jelavic in the FA Cup win at Bolton; now it was the departure of Kevin Mirallas that irritated them. "They're not happy with my decisions but I'd rather they direct it at myself [than the players]," Moyes said. In any case, vindication came from his side's response. Anichebe and Fellaini, men with imposing, intimidating physiques, led the fightback. "They both came up with the goods," Moyes said. "Victor played really well."
After a one-two with Anichebe, Fellaini placed a shot beyond Brad Guzan to halve the deficit. The Villa goalkeeper then thwarted Jelavic and Sylvain Distin before Fellaini supplied the equaliser and almost a decider. "We had a chance to win it 4-3," Moyes said. "We played really well apart from the first five minutes or so."
So it amounted to a classic that benefited none save the neutral. Everton's pursuit of a top-four finish has been hindered by their drawing habit. This, Moyes felt, was two points dropped. The Champions League may not beckon for them while the Championship looks all too likely a destination for Villa. "I thought we deserved to win the game but you never ease until it's finished," Lambert said. "I can't fault the players' efforts."
But though their enterprising attacking took them to the brink of a cathartic triumph, their defending, with 25 goals conceded in eight winless games, remains wretched.
After more than a decade of defying the odds for Everton, you would have thought that David Moyes had earned himself a bit more respect.
Sixty-four minutes in and with the Merseysiders trailing 3-1 to a Villa side who had belied their own troubles at the opposite end of the Premier League, Moyes made a double substitution that was to be pivotal.
The tiring Kevin Mirallas and the tormented John Heitinga off, Nikica Jelavic and Bryan Oviedo on.
Cue a crescendo of insults from all corners of Goodison Park.
By the final whistle, the jeers had been replaced by cheers, the old stadium rocking like days of old after two Marouane Fellaini goals had earned Everton a point that might yet prove priceless.
Moyes said: “The fans don’t seem to be happy with my decisions. They were the same at Bolton last week. I don’t know what their problem was, but it’s fine.
“As long as they direct their anger at me and not the players then that’s okay. We’ll just keep going and we’ll keep trying to get the victories.”
Moyes’ contract expires at the end of the season and Everton fans should cherish what they have got.
They only need to cast a glance at what is happening at Villa Park to realise that even big clubs can find themselves in relegation fights.
Paul Lambert’s men arrived at Goodison in crisis. No win in seven Premier League games, humbled in the Capital One Cup semi-finals by League Two Bradford and knocked out of the FA Cup by Millwall.
Once again it was Villa’s inability to defend set-pieces that was to cost them their first three-point haul since their last trip to Merseyside on December 15 saw them run riot at Anfield.
Christian Benteke scored twice in that 3-0 win over Liverpool and the £8.5million Belgian bruiser was unplayable again at times as he helped himself to another double that took his season’s tally to 14.
Benteke needed less than two minutes to show he was in the mood. Taking Charles N’Zogbia’s pass in his stride, he looked like a Ferrari going past a Reliant Robin as he tore past Heitinga before burying a low finish past Tim Howard.
Everton were level in the 21st minute with a goal that also owed much to sheer power.
Victor Anichebe had Ron Vlaar clinging to his back like a wet T-shirt as he collected Mirallas’ pass, but he showed strength to turn and send a low shot beyond Brad Guzan.
Parity lasted two minutes. Ashley Westwood was fed by Matthew Lowton after his corner was cleared by Anichebe.
And this time his cross into the Everton box was sent into the bottom corner by the head of the leaping Agbonlahor.
With a defence that is the worst in the top flight, Lambert would have known that his team would have to score more goals to keep Everton at bay. Andreas Weimann wasted a glorious chance early in the second half when he fired over after Agbonlahor’s pass had enabled him to spring the home side’s offside trap.
But Benteke was to make no mistake just after the hour.
Lowton worked space on the right with a clever exchange of passes with Weimann and the full-back’s perfect delivery was given the finish it deserved by Benteke as he once again held off Heitinga.
Moyes’ double substitution gave Everton fresh impetus and Fellaini’s finish in the 69th minute was unerring after Anichebe had once again proved too strong for Vlaar.
It was Fellaini’s first goal in almost two months and his next was soon to arrive.
Villa’s achilles heel was once again exposed in injury-time when Fellaini met Leighton Baines’ inswinging free-kick with an emphatic header.
There was still time for Jelavic to force Guzman into another save, but an Everton winner would have been cruel on the visitors.
Lambert said: “We are disappointed that we didn’t see it out, but if we continue to play like that we will start to get results.”
But Goodison Park boss David Moyes said: “This is two points dropped. We’ve had a difficult week playing Bolton in the Cup, West Brom and now Villa. I’d have taken a place in the next round of the Cup and four points.
“We wanted to win. Even after we got it back to three-all, we had chances to win.”
ROY HODGSON has warned Ashley Cole that he faces a fight to keep his England place – after winning his 100th cap against Brazil on Wednesday night.
The threat to the Chelsea left-back comes from the stunning form of Everton’s Leighton Baines, who at 28, is four years younger than Cole.
The England boss has confirmed that Cole will finally become an England centurion in the Wembley glamour game against Brazil.
But Hodgson said: “It is a difficult one for me. In friendly matches, you can give them 45 minutes each.
“But there will come a time when both are fit and raring to go and we have an important match and both want to start.
“I will then have to disappoint one of them. They will have to fight it out. The competition between them will be fierce and I’ll have to make a decision.
“And when I make that decision, I will know if the player plays well and we win the game, I’ll be held as having made the right decision.
“But if we play badly and lose, I will have made the wrong decision.”
Dealing with such a headache is not something that bothers the Three Lions coach. The ex-Fulham boss said: “If I’m honest, this is how it should be if you are manager of a top footballing nation.
“A country like ours should have a couple of good players in each position – Brazil certainly do.
“Leighton has nothing more to do – he has proved himself to me. He knows that he is capable of playing for England at left-back.
“And Ashley knows he is capable, too. He’s proved it with what will be 100 caps.
“Ashley will play on Wednesday – whether he plays the whole game, whether he plays half a game, whether he’ll start, that I’ll decide.
“If he is fit, he will play and get his 100th cap – without a doubt.”
Cole has had his issues off the pitch – including the break-up of his marriage to Cheryl Cole.
But Hodgson said: “I can judge him over the last nine months that I have worked with him and I find him a very good professional.
“He’s a quiet man who prefers to do his talking on the football field.
“I judge him as a football player and I don’t get involved in whether the public think this or think that.”
Despite Cole’s milestone, Steven Gerrard will captain England on Wednesday – and Hodgson will pair him with Jack Wilshere.
He added: “When you have two players of great football ability and mutual respect, there’s no reason why they can’t work together.”
David Flitcroft has told Everton they have signed England’s best young right-back in John Stones.
But Barnsley boss Flitcroft has admitted that selling Stones was “like losing a member of your own family”.
Goodison chief David Moyes completed a £3million swoop for Stones, 18, after monitoring the Barnsley-born prospect’s progress since the start of the season.
And he beat off fierce competition from Premier League rivals Wigan, Southampton and Fulham to snare the teenager just hours before the transfer window slammed shut on Thursday night.
Flitcroft, who is battling to guide the Tykes to Championship survival, said: “On Wednesday, I was pretty confIdent that we would keep John.
“But then I got a call on Thursday morning to say that he would probably be leaving.
“To be honest, I am numb. It is like losing a member of your own family.
“I was asked if I could replace him, and the answer was ‘No.’ How do you replace the best young defender in England?
“There is nobody out there as good as John, and that is why clubs were prepared to pay £3million for him.”
Ashley Cole, who will win his 100th cap for England against Brazil, has been warned he faces stiff competition from Leighton Baines for his starting place in the World Cup qualifiers.
Cole will become the seventh player to reach his century alongside Billy Wright, Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton, Peter Shilton, David Beckham and Steven Gerrard.
But manager Roy Hodgson admits he faces a tough decision before the qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro next month because Baines is now widely acknowledged as Cole’s equal based on form this season.
‘There will be a time when both are fit and raring to go and we have an important match when both want to start. I’ll have to disappoint one of them,’ said Hodgson.
‘But that’s how it should be if you are the manager of a top football nation.
‘A country like ours should have a couple of good choices in each position. The Brazilians do.
'I look at their squad and there’s probably another 10 or 12 that we could name that could easily have got in there.
‘It might be nice one day if our discussions focused around how you have two fantastic left-backs, three fantastic right-backs, eight fantastic centrebacks. What are you going to do?
‘The answer is, I’m going to pick 11 players, make the others disappointed and make sure we win.’
Hodgson is also likely to start with Jack Wilshere at Wembley.
The Arsenal player came on as a substitute against Sweden for Hodgson last November at the start of his comeback from a knee injury but the England manager is relishing pairing the 21-year-old with captain Steven Gerrard, having seen the pair go head to head in a 2-2 draw at Arsenal.
‘They were excellent, weren’t they?’ said Hodgson.
‘I thought their performances were exactly what you’d want to see from two top players. They defended against each other very well, without resorting to a silly tackle or a foul.
‘We were talking earlier about the Pele- Bobby Moore picture at the end of the 1970 game [they embraced after England’s 1-0 defeat by Brazil]. It’s interesting how often that happens.
'The two top people have got that mutual respect. I thought I saw that with Steven and Jack.’
Hodgson hopes that Gerrard will become a role model for Wilshere. He said: ‘It won’t be for me to push them towards each other.
‘But it would be nice if Jack saw in people like Steven Gerrard, but also in Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, how they’ve had to accept a burden of expectation and pressure and still been able to deal with it and perform today.’
AFTER 90 minutes, it was a Villa thriller. After 93, it had become a Villa killer.
Gone was the victory that might have transformed their troubled season. Gone the three points that would have given them hope of winning their relegation battle. Gone the chance to prove they weren’t too young, too naive and too poor defensively.
Instead, they got a reminder of the flaws that have plagued them all year. They cannot defend corners. If they could, Paul Lambert’s team would be in the Capital One Cup final. Their set-piece problems recurred yet again. “I’m sick of talking about it,” boss Lambert said.
He is sick of seeing it, too. But when Leighton Baines curled in an injury-time corner, Marouane Fellaini leapt highest and headed home his second goal. Everton had turned defeat into a draw, but their hopes of a top-four finish were dented nonetheless.
The forceful, fantastic Fellaini led the fightback. But if Everton’s comeback was made in Belgium, so was Villa’s surprise surge into the lead.
Whoever said there were no famous Belgians is wrong. They were on either side at Goodison Park. Christian Benteke scored twice, just as he did when Villa won at Anfield in December. If only they could play on Merseyside every week, they would be flying. Instead, they are floundering.
Villa’s Belgian battering ram struck after two minutes, latching on to Charles N’Zogbia’s pass, beating Johnny Heitinga with embarrassing ease and stroking a shot past Tim Howard.
But it was a game of two bruising strikers, and Victor Anichebe levelled with a goal straight out of Benteke’s handbook.
He had the upper-body strength to shrug off Ron Vlaar, turn and direct a shot past Brad Guzan.
But while Everton are used to conceding first, they are not exactly accustomed to trailing 3-1 at fortress Goodison. Yet they did. Ashley Westwood swung in a cross, Gabriel Agbonlahor leapt highest to meet it and direct his header in.
“If anyone doesn’t think Benteke, Agbonlahor and N’Zogbia can’t cause you problems, then they are wrong,” David Moyes said. “They have got really good attacking players, with power and pace. We didn’t deal with it that well.”
Andreas Weimann, sent clear by Agbonlahor and ballooning his shot over the bar, ought to have made it 3-1. Benteke did. Matthew Lowton exchanged passes with Weimann, whipped in a curling cross and the Belgian dived forward to head home.
“The third was a world-class goal,” Lambert said. And then Villa, embarrassed by Bradford and Millwall of late, should have gone from ignominy to ecstasy.
Lambert’s team had only half an hour to see out. They couldn’t do it. Moyes hauled off Heitinga, at fault for all of Villa’s goals, and the rather more popular Kevin Mirallas to boos from the Everton crowd. “They’re not happy with my decisions,” Moyes said.
They were happier with what followed. Fellaini exchanged passes with Anichebe and placed his shot past Guzan. The onslaught continued. Guzan denied Nikica Jelavic and Sylvain Distin before Fellaini towered above the Villa defence.
“Ron has got him and he lost him,” rued Lambert. Villa could have lost the match, too. Fellaini might have had a hat-trick, Everton all three points. “We had a chance to win it,” said Moyes.
Two points dropped? “I think so,” said the Scot. It was a result that may keep Everton out of the Champions League and could send Villa into the Championship. It was a truly great game.
And yet the outcome pleased no one.