Everton led twice but had to settle for a point in a breathless 2-2 draw with Nottingham Forest at the City Ground.
Demarai Gray’s 10th-minute penalty and Abdoulaye Doucoure’s close-range header just before the half-hour mark had given the Blues hope of a priceless victory in the East Midlands, only for Brennan Johnson’s double – his second coming 13 minutes from time – meaning both sides had to settle for a share of the spoils.
For two teams who had struggled to find the back of the net over the course of this season, there was no shortage of attacking intent throughout an enthralling contest, with the point putting Sean Dyche’s Blues level on points with Leeds United in 17th.
Dyche made two changes from the midweek defeat to league leaders Arsenal, Gray replacing Neal Maupay to spearhead the Blues’ attack, with Ben Godfrey coming in for the ill Vitalii Mykolenko at left-back.
There was also a place on the bench for former Forest loanee James Garner, the midfielder having been out since November with a back injury.
Everton enjoyed a bright opening to the contest, with plenty of crisp passing on both flanks. McNeil – so impressive since Dyche became Blues manager – was in the thick of the action, first being barged over by Johnson as he looked to whip in a left-wing cross, and then firing over the bar from the edge of the area.
The summer signing was integral to the visitors finding a deserved opener from the penalty spot on 10 minutes, too. When Doucoure rose high to challenge for a header inside the area and then attempt to squeeze in the follow-up, McNeil collected the ball and was brought down by Jonjoe Shelvey as he jinked past the midfielder.
After a VAR check for a possible Doucoure handball, Gray was given spot-kick duties and made no mistake to send Keilor Navas the wrong way and slot home.
Having done so well to take the ascendancy, though, Everton could not hold their lead for long as Forest hit back nine minutes later, Jordan Pickford saving Morgan Gibbs-White’s 20-yard drive, only for Johnson to collect the rebound and finish from the right side of the area.
A topsy-turvy opening continued with the Blues then regaining the initiative as Seamus Coleman screamed for another penalty when he burst into the area from the right and argued he had his leg clipped by Jack Colback. Referee John Brooks waved play on – but there was to be no denying Everton just before the half-hour mark.
Pickford pumped a free-kick into the area from inside his own half, Tarkowski headed on, quickly followed by a Michael Keane nod down before Doucoure completed a quickfire hat-trick of headers by beating Navas from close-range.
This time, Dyche’s men didn’t retreat back into their shell as they continued with their impressive sequence of passing that nearly carved out a third goal when McNeil unleashed a stinging drive from the edge of the area that Navas had to tip over the bar.
It really should have been 3-1 seconds before the interval as a rapid counter following a Forest free-kick saw Gana turn and release Onana to burst upfield. The Belgium international fed Doucoure on the left edge of the penalty box, with the goalscorer knocking the ball past Joe Worrall and picking out Gray inside the area, only for the forward’s finish to lack power, enabling the hosts to clear.
The second half began just as frantically as the first with Forest upping the tempo in search of a second equaliser. There were a few scuffles thrown into the mix as well – Gibbs-White, McNeil, Renan Lodi and Tarkowski all cautioned within 12 minutes of the restart.
Everton looked organised and solid to thwart any Forest pressure heading into the 70th minute, forcing Steve Cooper into making a triple substitution in search of a breakthrough; Andre Ayew, Emmanuel Dennis and Ryan Yates coming on for Wood, Remo Freuler and Colback.
It was the Blues who were the next to knock of the door, however, as the tireless Gana did well to work his way on to the right byline but could not pick out a blue shirt when he slid a pass across the box.
Everton pushed for a crucial third goal on the counter, but it was trying to forge a quick attack that led to the hosts making it 2-2 with 13 minutes remaining. Doucoure’s attempted pass to Iwobi was intercepted, enabling Johnson to play a one-two with Yates before finishing into the top left-hand corner from just inside the area.
It set up a grandstand finish that zipped from one end to the other, Iwobi and Gray combining on a series of breakaways that so nearly saw the Nigerian have a clean run through on goal.
The duo were replaced in the closing stages by Neal Maupay and Tom Davies as five minutes of added time were signalled.
Still, both teams pushed for an all-important winner that wasn’t to come as the Blues collected a point that they came agonisingly close to collecting all three.