Everton Lose To Late Villa Strike

Everton have it all to do in their pursuit of European football after Anwar El Ghazi’s excellent 80th-minute strike ripped a point from the grasp of Carlo Ancelotti’s team.

The home side would likely have been content with the draw given the way the night unfolded.

They lost James Rodriguez to a problem sustained in the pre-match warm-up and fell a goal behind when Ollie Watkins struck on 13 minutes.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin soared above Villa’s rearguard to equalise six minutes later – a 20th goal of the season for the Everton striker, who was assisted by Lucas Digne from a corner.

Jordan Pickford was fabulous for Everton, denying Watkins one-on-one on three separate occasions.

He kept out Bertrand Traore in a similar situation but the leaping save from the follow up was even better.

Everton had more of the second half but couldn’t find the goal to turn the game on its head.

And El Ghazi curled out of Pickford’s reach from 20 yards to claim the points for the away team.

Everton remain eighth and have a two-point gap to close to sixth.

Where to begin with an opening half you couldn’t take your eyes off, full of speed and invention and opportunity?

Well, before kick-off, oddly enough. That’s when the story arc of the night started as news filtered through of James’s enforced withdrawal from Everton’s team.

Alex Iwobi received a battlefield promotion, playing on the right as Ancelotti rejigged his formation, shuffling Richarlison infield to play behind Calvert-Lewin.

James, who hurt his calf, was an inevitably big miss. He plays on a different level, according to Ancelotti, and no amount of tweaking and finessing can compensate for losing a footballer of that calibre.

Not on a creative front, anyway. Everton found it tough to open up Villa but they persisted and, as the game wore on, applied more pressure.

Indeed, they aimed more attempt than their opponents – although goalkeeper Pickford was Everton’s best player.

Everton’s manager fielded questions about Calvert-Lewin in Friday’s pre-match press conference.

How prescient he was, claiming Calvert-Lewin would soon gain reward for his perseverance and all-round contribution up front.

The prize for Everton’s England international striker arrived in the 19th minute of a game already bubbling with attacking intent.

Digne flighted a right-wing corner to the back post where Calvert-Lewin climbed – into a different orbit from anyone around him – and headed past Emiliano Martinez.

Tyrone Mings desperately tried to scramble the ball off the line but the defender was embarking on a fool’s errand.

Everton were one down at this stage – and without Pickford in goal the damage could have been worse.

Indeed, but for Pickford, parity would have been shortlived.

He was exceptional.

And it took a perfectly-placed strike from Watkins to defeat Everton’s goalkeeper on 13 minutes.

Watkins sensed a chance to pinch the ball from Mason Holgate and after gaining possession was strong to retain it.

He steadied himself in the box before angling the ball across Pickford and inside the keeper’s right post.

The game was open and unpredictable.

There was one thread binding it together, nonetheless, namely the duel between Pickford and Watkins.

Pickford saved with his left hand when Watkins bundled into the box to shoot at 1-0 following Matt Cash’s ball over the top.

Everton had been the sharper and quicker side to the ball in the opening stages but as Villa found their rhythm, so Watkins’ involvement grew.

Pickford faced down the England forward again after a ball ricocheted for Watkins in the box. And the keeper won the battle, once more, spreading himself to save.

Ben Godfrey stood tall to deny John McGinn when the midfielder forcefully sent the loose ball on target.

Pickford reserved his best for the 32nd-minute.

Watkins was stretching to meet Cash’s deep cross from the right but forced a convincing effort on goal, from six yards.

Everton’s goalkeeper was equal to it, taking off to his left to produce a magnificent stop.

El Ghazi eventually got hold of the rebound and cracked the bar with a rising drive.

Bertrand Traore, meantime, joined Watkins in discovering Pickford’s ability in man-on-man situations.

The forward gathered possession on the right of the area and for all money appeared poised to score.

The save this time came from Pickford’s legs – and he was instantly turning them over to get back in position.

Traore had the ball back at his feet and was sizing up a shot, which came in the shape of a curler destined for the far corner.

Pickford used his left hand to tip behind. The athleticism and reactions employed to reach the ball in the first place were extraordinary.

Villa struck the woodwork for a second time when Ross Barkley carried the ball forwards before sending a shot scudding into the base of the post from 18 yards.

Everton were indebted to Pickford and their goalframe, then – but they weren’t without invention and chances of their own.

Digne’s cross on the volley in the 23rd minute was technically exquisite.

Calvert-Lewin met it with a diving header that conjured memories of Andy Gray scoring in that fashion against Sunderland at the same Park End.

On this occasion, however, Everton were denied by Martinez’s left hand.

Villa’s top-drawer goalkeeper was similarly impressive to repel Gylfi Sigurdsson, who flew in to connect with another Digne delivery.

It was an indication of how stretched the game was becoming when Douglas Luiz went into the book for dragging down fellow Brazilian Richarlison as the forward – making his 100th Premier League appearance for Everton – galloped into wide open spaces.

Sigurdsson looped a shot over from 20 yards, soon after Barkley was high from comparable distance for Villa.

Watkins, by now aware he had to be spot on to beat Pickford, dragged wide of the far post after being slid in by El Ghazi.

Everton returned from the break with a mind to pinning Villa back.

Iwobi struck over and Allan wide, before Richarlison seized on Mings’ back header to control and flash a shot across goal.

When Richarlison found his range after escaping the attention of Ezri Konsa, the shot was planted into the midriff of Martinez.

The pace dipped for a while – it had to – as both teams gathered themselves for a final charge.

Allan dispossessed Luiz on the edge of his own box, Everton springing on the counter but wide with the eventual attempt from Calvert-Lewin.

Within 60 seconds, Villa restored their advantage.

Traore moved in from the right to feed a ball across the fringe of the penalty area for El Ghazi.

The Dutchman still had a lot to do, shifting the ball onto his right foot for a shot that flew into Pickford’s top-left corner.

It was going to take something special to get past Pickford and here it was.

Traore swapped passes with McGinn and shot early but high as Villa went for the kill.

Everton had Joshua King on for Sigurdsson after introducing Bernard and Fabian Delph – Gomes and Iwobi making way.

And King drove fractionally wide when space opened up in front of him for a shot with five minutes remaining.

That was the last of the chances. Tonight, anyway. Everton have five games remaining and minimal margin for error.

Pickford The Unlucky Loser

There isn’t a set of supporters around who understand better than those who followed Everton in the mid-1980s the value of a brilliant goalkeeper.

Nobody is saying Jordan Pickford is at Neville Southall’s level just yet – but Everton’s number one, through a mix of athleticism, courage and outstanding reflexes, kept his side in this game for a long time.

Carlo Ancelotti was asked on Friday about the composure demonstrated by Pickford since he returned from a nagging rib injury against Tottenham Hotspur two weeks ago.

Everton’s manager took the opportunity to talk up Pickford’s all-round contribution.

Yes, he does look fairly unflappable on the field but talk of Pickford’s countenance masks the talent underneath.

The examples of quality one-on-one stops since coming to Everton have been plentiful across four seasons.

There was a period when he seemed to make one every other week, a denial of Mohamed Salah two years ago sticking in the memory.

Here, Pickford was confronted four times by Villa players bearing down on his goal following Ollie Watkins’ 13th-minute strike.

Every time, he emerged on top.

The save to keep out Watkins at 1-0 was crucial. Had Everton gone two down after 17 minutes – following the pre-match injury for James Rodriguez – they could have been in for a long night.

Having hauled themselves on terms, they relied on Pickford to keep them there.

He got down to thwart Watkins in the box after the forward found space on the right.

Watkins on the opposite side after 32 minutes, bundling the ball across Pickford but astonished to see the 27-year-old flying through the air to save.

Bertrand Traore wasn’t done with trying after Pickford repelled the former Lyon player at close quarters with his legs.

Pickford took off again, making a fabulous, leaping stop to push round a floated effort destined for his far corner.

The England number one’s body of work included safe handling and terrific anticipation to tidy up outside his area.

He had no chance with Anwar El Ghazi’s winner and didn’t deserve to finish on the losing team.