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KEVIN MIRALLAS’ flair and goals can play an influential part in Everton FC’s bid for Europe, insists Darron Gibson.
The Belgian scored the third of a 3-1 Goodison victory over Reading on Saturday, and was in impressive form as David Moyes’ men bolstered their European ambitions in the second of a sequence of five home games.
Gibson admitted Mirallas, a £6m summer signing from Olympiakos, has found it difficult while beset with injury woes this season, but believes the forward is ready to show his worth over the next two and a half months of the campaign.
He said: “Everyone knows Kevin is a good player. It’s been difficult for him but he’s starting to find his feet now.
“If he can keep playing that well for the remaining games of the season he’ll play a big part. He’s a flair player. He likes to get on the ball, dribble and shoot.”
Gibson was impressed with his side’s attacking play, although he was disappointed they failed to record a rare clean sheet.
“It’s been damaging the amount of goals we’ve conceded, but this week the attacking side overpowered the defensive side,” said the midfielder.
“It was frustrating not to get the clean sheet but we created a lot of chances and could have had a lot more goals. If you look at the game as a whole I think our attacking was a lot better than it has been lately.
“It was a great result and we needed it after the last few results. We’ve conceded too many goals and it was unfortunate to concede another one, but I thought we deserved the win and played well.”
Gibson was one of many bright performers in blue as relegation-haunted Reading were brushed aside, and he completed 90 minutes despite continuing to nurse a problem with his thigh that his manager believes is limiting his performances.
However the Republic of Ireland international hopes the problem might not require surgery in the summer, as previously feared.
He added: “Fingers crossed it won’t need an operation in the summer. I don’t really want to talk about it too much. I’m just managing it at the minute. I’m happy enough. I’m comfortable playing.”
DAVID MOYES has called for greater protection for his players, after Phil Jagielka spent Saturday night in hospital having his ankle stitched back together and Tim Howard missed his first Premier League match since September 2007 after a buffetting from Oldham in midweek.
Goalkeeper Howard was just two games short of matching Neville Southall's club record for consecutive League appearances (212) but had to sit out the match after landing painfully on his back following a challenge which resulted in a yellow card in midweek.
Reading striker Adam le Fondre was also booked for the challenge which led to Jagielka limping off just five minutes into Saturday's match and Moyes said: “I don't want to be too critical of the referees but I'm certainly going to stand up and protect my players and I don't think they've been protected correctly in a couple of games recently.
“Jags is bad. He's going to get surgery on his ankle to repair the cut. It's a bad, bad gash.
“I'm not happy with the challenge which put him out of the game and I'm not happy with the challenge made on our goalkeeper in the past two games which puts him out of the game.
And I'm one who doesn't mind challenges. I'm quite happy for a bit of that if that's what it is.
“I don't mind robust challenges, but one which puts out arguably one of my best players..., well, he'll be out for a few weeks.
“The bone was showing and it's an area where you kick the ball and it's a real blow for us.”
Jagielka was cruelly denied an FA Cup final appearance in 2009 by injury and looks almost certain to miss Saturday's quarter-final against Wigan, victory in which would take the Blues back to Wembley.
DAVID MOYES believes that Kevin Mirallas is poised to recapture the form which marked him out as one of the Premier League's brightest new discoveries earlier in the season.
The Belgian forward earned rave notices for his first few performances in Royal Blue, before a niggling hamstring problem interrupted his progress.
But, now fully fit, Mirallas celebrated his second goal in a week against Reading on Saturday and manager Moyes said: “The Kevin Mirallas who plays today is a threat and the one who plays today has got a goal in him. And we hope that continues.
“He needed to get his fitness back – and he looked today like someone who could score goals and he looked like someone who could make goals.
“And in recent games where we've played him I don't think he's looked like that. But we've had to give him some time to get back playing.
“He'll feel better himself. He looked as if he could go either way when he was getting at people and he looked like he had a bit about him. I think he'll have gained a bit of confidence from his goal in midweek.
“I thought he finished his goal today brilliantly well. He shaped to put it one side and finished it the other and I think that will give him a lot of confidence.
“He'll give the other players a boost, too, because we've needed goals from him and Jela and in the past couple of games Kevin's come in and got us a couple of goals, which is a boost to the players because they love to see players scoring goals as well.
“He's got a lot of really good attributes and he can get better.”
Moyes was also delighted with the contribution of Steven Pienaar on the opposite flank.
So often the team's creative fulcrum, the South African schemer slipped the pass through for Mirallas' goal, but also scored a stunning effort of his own.
“Pienaar's the one who can make us a lot of chances for a lot of our players,” said Moyes.
“I think he's found it a bit difficult at times. People have been very tight on him. And I thought he did a lot of good work today. Because of that it helped Seamus Coleman play better too.
“He scored a great goal. A brilliant goal. I'm really pleased because he's an important player and I think the one thing which is sometimes levelled at him is that he doesn't score enough to go with his talent but he's beginning to get us a few goals now and today's was right out of the sweet spot.”
Moyes also had words of sympathy for Nikica Jelavic, whose Premier League goal drought extended to 12 matches with another blank.
“I thought Jela did quite well today as well and was unfortunate not to get his name on the scoresheet,” he added.
“He looked closer to scoring. The keeper made a couple of half decent saves from him and we could have scored more. Having said that Reading had one or two moments themselves.
“In other games I think we've had chances not dissimilar to today and not scored them. And in the end maybe been punished. I didn't think we defended the corner kicks well today in the first half but in the second half I think we defended them really well. And we had to.
“The difference was that we took some of our chances, which we hadn't done, and we defended better.
“We played well. We started quite well but the injury rocked us quite badly and it took us a wee while to settle after that.
“We got the goal then made a few chances, but Reading were always a threat.”
THE Grand National trophy was displayed at Goodison beforehand and 90 minutes later Everton had suggested they may not fall at the final hurdle after all.
Their top four hopes have largely been written off, and there are others below them in the Premier League table who covet the Europa League qualifying spots, but against Reading David Moyes’ men delivered a timely reminder of why they were tipped as dark horses for great things this season in the first place.
The focus recently has been on the damaging nature of their leaky defence, but perhaps Everton’s biggest problem this season has been a failure to take their chances in games.
It’s no accident that Arsenal and Spurs above them have players on 18 goals, Theo Walcott, and 19, Gareth Bale, while Marouane Fellaini is the Blues top scorer with 11.
At times on Saturday it looked like being the familiar story of missed opportunities to kill the game off in the first half, but then Fellaini opened the floodgates and Everton finally showed their too often lacking ruthless streak.
There were moments in their attacking play that recalled the heady optimism of last autumn when Aston Villa and Swansea were vanquished so stylishly.
That was before the inevitable rash of injuries bit into a small squad. Moyes has admitted how much his side has missed one of those casualties, Kevin Mirallas, and with the Belgian back in full flow and ably supported in his attacking endeavours down the right by Seamus Coleman Everton are an infinitely more compelling prospect.
And although he once again drew a blank there were flickering signs in Nikica Jelavic’s endeavour and ability to find dangerous space inside the opposition’s penalty area that he may yet spring to life. His struggles this term have already had a damaging impact, but if he can rediscover his golden touch it could well galvanise Everton’s run-in.
They certainly ensured morale was lifted in Goodison, which has been a nervy place recently despite back to back wins.
But typically there was a cloud looming near Everton’s silver-lining. The likely loss of Phil Jagielka for next Saturday’s FA Cup quarter final against a Wigan side chastened by Liverpool is a severe blow. The Blues stand-in skipper played no further part after a clumsy challenge from Adam Le Fondre which left him writhing in agony and requiring stitches in his ankle.
That set-back came after just five minutes of Saturday’s contest, and it undermined an otherwise bright start by the Blues.
Steven Pienaar’s cross had created a prime opportunity for Jelavic to score in the opening seconds but the Croatian skewed his header badly wide.
Then Jelavic turned provider for the South African who scooped a close range effort over the bar.
Reading almost took advantage of a dip in tempo by the hosts when Mikele Leigertwood flicked on Ian Harte’s corner and Le Fondre seized on the ball to strike the post with a venomous drive.
If it was something of a let-off for Moyes’ side, at least they responded in the correct manner, cranking up the pressure and carving out a string of chances.
When they failed to convert any of them, a worryingly familiar pattern seemed about to emerge. Jelavic had another effort on goal well saved by Stuart Taylor, Pienaar wastefully shot wide when well positioned and then Mirallas forced an excellent stop from Taylor with his ambitious attempt from outside the box.
In the dug-out, Moyes shook his head ruefully. He has seen his side pay for such wastefulness too many times this term.
Fortunately Marouane Fellaini hadn’t read the script. He swopped passes with Seamus Coleman who was pushing forward menacingly and the Republic of Ireland international’s perfect cross allowed Fellaini to leap easily above Jobi McAnuff and head home at the far post.
They maintained that pressure after the break, with Jelavic again probing. It seemed like his presence had earned a penalty when Stephen Kelly shoved him over in a goal-mouth scramble, but Anthony Taylor somehow decided otherwise.
Everton’s midfield dominance was total by now, and their frustrated opponents reverted to overly physical attempts to stem the flow of royal blue shirts.
Pienaar might not have convinced with his pea-roller attempt in the first half, but he more than made amends just before the hour.
He picked up the ball 45 yards from goal, burst forward and unleashed an unstoppable shot which scorched past Taylor.
The visitors were bedraggled and demoralised, and pretty soon Everton rubbed it in.
The ball broke to livewire Pienaar off Kelly and the playmaker slipped a defence-splitting pass to Mirallas who confidently beat Taylor at the near post. So far, so good.
On his first Premier League start Jan Mucha had largely been untroubled, but Tim Howard’s deputy played his part, making a fine reflex save from McAnuff as Reading attempted to hit back.
It was just a shame that there was to be no clean sheet for the Blues yet again. They haven’t won and recorded a complete shut-out since September 22 when they beat Swansea 3-0.
Harte slipped his marker too easily, was allowed too much time to cross from the edge of the area and substitute Hal Robson-Kanu rose practically unchallenged to score with a powerful header. It was disappointing, but not enough to mar an otherwise assured performance.
Everton continued to probe sporadically but by then were content to see out the remaining minutes secure in the knowledge that their much-needed surge in momentum may have arrived just in time.
With three more Goodison games on the agenda, let’s hope home comforts persist.
He can hardly consider himself the best-known Belgian in the Everton team, let alone the Barclays Premier League, yet Kevin Mirallas’ timely return to form and fitness is being seen as the catalyst for bringing European football back to Goodison Park.
In contrast to so many of his high-profile compatriots, the Belgium winger slipped under the radar when he joined Everton from Olympiakos for £6million last August.
He was in danger of returning to relative anonymity after finally shaking off a nagging hamstring injury but doing little to lift his side out of a rut that yielded just one win in six Premier League games.
With time running out to avoid being cut adrift in the race for European places, Everton needed a convincing win against Reading and telling contribution from Mirallas to restore belief that they can last the course.
They got both, and manager David Moyes could not hide his relief, as he described why the 25-year old’s belated recuperation can hold the key to European qualification, via the League or FA Cup.
Though angered by a late challenge by Adam Le Fondre on Phil Jagielka that left the England defender needing surgery on a deep ankle wound, Moyes saw Mirallas’ transformation as the missing link for fulfilling Everton’s early-season promise.
A header from Everton’s most famous Belgian, Marouane Fellaini, stunning strike from Steven Pienaar and clever finish by Mirallas saw off Reading, who replied late on through Hal Robson-Kanu.
‘What we saw from Kevin today was a player who looked like he can score and create,’ said Moyes.
‘That’s not how he looked previously, but it was just a question of getting his fitness levels up again, and that has helped his confidence.
‘He looks like he’s got a goal in him now, and that gives the other players a real lift if they think he can finish things off for them. That’s really important for us, because we’ve needed someone to get on the end of things, whether it be Kevin or Nikica Jelavic.
'I thought Jela played well, but things aren’t going his way at present, so to have Kevin providing that threat is really important.
‘We’ll need that, for sure, if we are going to continue our form this season. It was the sort of form he showed early in the season when he was full of menace, and frightened teams. If he can continue that, then it will give us the edge we are looking for in the run-in. Some of the things he tried were audacious, and it was good to see him return to that level of confidence.’
Jagielka faces at least a fortnight out after being caught late by a challenge that looked like going unpunished, until referee Anthony Taylor walked over and inspected the damage before belatedly producing a yellow card.
‘He needs surgery at a local hospital tonight to stitch up the injury, because the cut is all the way down to the bone,’ said Moyes. ‘That tells you how bad it is. It is a really deep cut, and I wasn’t at all happy about the challenge.’
Reading’s survival quest is being hampered by refereeing decisions, according to manager Brian McDermott, who accused Taylor of missing a clear handball by Sylvain Distin in the area.
‘Last week against Wigan, some guy handled the ball in the middle of our box and they scored off that,’ he said. ‘This week, there’s a ball into their box, the guy puts his arms up, but the referee doesn’t give a penalty.
'That should have been a penalty today, while last week it was handball and Wigan’s goal should not have been given.
‘When we played Newcastle earlier this season, Demba Ba handled one blatantly into the net, and it was given as a goal, so you would like to think, with 10 games to go, things might turn a little bit. It is frustrating, but you just have to hope refs start seeing things a bit more.’
Emotion dictated that the immediate post-match focus from David Moyes was on the players he had lost to some gruesome ‘assaults’ in recent games.
Yet when he makes a more considered reflection on this 3-1 victory over Reading at Goodison Park, the Everton boss will no doubt settle on the players he finally seems to have back, after being posted on the missing list for much of the past month.
Moyes was understandably agitated about a physical approach from the Royals that saw Phil Jagielka limp off with a gash to his ankle so bad it sliced right through to the bone, and requires surgery to correct.
His replacement John Heitinga was also laid out and, with Tim Howard floored in the previous match, the Scot was not exactly in a joyous mood.
Yet even without Jagielka and Howard, Everton will undoubtedly be a different prospect than the side that struggled to record a win through most of February.
And it’s largely down to the spectacular return to form of their two key creative players – Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar.
Mirallas was a sensation, his movement and audacious skills a joy to watch.
The Belgian’s goal to make it 3-0 – after Marouane Fellaini and Pienaar had both netted – was a case in point, as he threw an outrageous dummy to give the visiting keeper the eyes and slid in deliciously at the near post.
His ball, too, for Pienaar’s goal – a sublime strike from distance – showed he was well and truly back.
“Mirallas was a very different player than the one who’d been operating in recent weeks. He needed to get his fitness back, because he was out for a long time with the injury,” said Moyes.
“He looked like he can score and create goals, and he didn’t look like that previously – and it gives players a real lift if they think he can finish it off for them.
“We’ve needed someone to get on the end of things. I thought Nikica Jelavic played well, but things aren’t going his way right now, so to have Kevin providing that threat is really important.
“It was the sort of form he showed early in the season when he frightened teams. If he can continue that, then it will give us the edge we need for the run-in.”
Moyes pointed out that Everton have actually played well in recent weeks, but lacked that final ball or clinical finish, and he believes Pienaar too, can play a huge role.
The Blues got the edge in this game thanks to a fine cross from Seamus Coleman and towering header from Fellaini, but even there the South African had an influence.
“Steven is a player who provides so much for us – he is the provider in this team and behind so much of the stuff we do. So the fact he’s been quiet in recent weeks has been difficult,” Moyes added.
“He’s found it a bit tough because sides are denying him space and marking him so tightly, so we’ve had to accept that and look at different things.”
Reading can testify to it, though they can rightly point to a clear penalty not given with the score at 2-0, when Sylvain Distin blatantly handled, that may have changed the tone of the contest.
For boss Brian McDermott, it was typical of the sort of decisions his side have had in recent weeks.
“I thought it was handball inside the area, so you have to give a penalty,” he said. “It was an important decision, but the ref didn’t give it. I seem to be talking about these things every week.
“But there’s no point moaning because we have to take referees out of the equation when it comes to staying up.
“The problem is, at this level, when you go to places like Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton, the margins are very small.”
The Royals grabbed a consolation six minutes from time through Hal Robson-Kanu’s header.
For Everton's manager David Moyes this was a victory that delivered more than three points. It was one that hinted that an over-reliance on Marouane Fellaini for goals might just be coming to an end.
Everton should have known things would turn out tickety-boo when Fellaini scored for the 11th time in the Premier League this season – they have not lost when he has registered. Yet it was the final goal of a fine three, a composed finish from another Belgian, Kevin Mirallas, midway through the second half, that most enthused Moyes.
It was the second time inside a week that the £6m summer signing from Olympiakos had struck at Goodison Park, suggesting that he may become a more regular scoring outlet towards the fag end of the season. Steven Pienaar, who switched flanks effectively with Mirallas during the first half, also scored from distance as Everton finished with real swagger to clinch only a second league win since 2 January.
"Mirallas was a very different player to the one who'd been operating in recent weeks. What we saw was a player who looked like he could score and create goals, and he didn't look like that previously," said Moyes, who in mitigation of Mirallas believes the Belgian is only now at full capacity following three months dogged by hamstring trouble.
"That's really important for us because we've needed someone to get on the end of things. We'll need that if we are going to continue our form this season. It was the sort of form he showed early in the season when he was full of menace, and frightened teams. If he can continue that then it will give us the edge we are looking for in the run-in, and with the cup game coming up."
For the match in question, the FA Cup quarter-final against Wigan on Saturday, Everton will be without their captain, Phil Jagielka. A clumsy challenge by Reading's Adam le Fondre left a deep gash in Jagielka's ankle that required a hospital visit but should not sideline him for England's World Cup qualifiers in San Marino on 22 March and Montenegro four days later.
Moyes condemned the offending tackle but Reading also cried foul after yet another fruitless away trip. They have mustered only five points on the road, the lowest return in the top flight, and their efforts to fight back on Saturday were hampered when the referee, Anthony Taylor, failed to see the ball strike Sylvain Distin's hand in the area.
"When we played Newcastle earlier this season Demba Ba handled one blatantly into the net and it was given as a goal, so you would like to think, with 10 games to go, things might turn a little bit," said Reading's manager, Brian McDermott. "The problem is, at this level, when you go to places like Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton, the margins are very small. We need everything to be on our side, we need the ref to get those decisions right and we also need to play well. If all that happens, we've got a chance. It seems we've no problem when it comes to scoring late goals, but we just left ourselves too much to do."
Indeed, Hal Robson-Kanu's near-post header emphasised second-from-bottom Reading's fighting spirit – it was the 17th time they had scored in the final 20 minutes of a Premier League match this season, exactly half of their overall goal tally.