Everton came through a tricky challenge by seeing off Stoke City 1-0 in what was a rather less exciting tie than two weeks ago.
David Moyes had selection issues, as Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar were suspended, although Goalkeeper Tim Howard and Centre-Back Phil Jagielka were available again. The Blues Boss shocked many Evertonians when it was announced that a 3-5-2 line up was going to be deployed. Heitinga, Jagielka and Distin lined up alongside each other in defence, Coleman and Baines held the wings, Osman and Gibson kept the midfield positions and Mirallas was given a free role just behind Anichebe and Jelavic in attack.
As for Stoke, Tony Pullis lined up with the more conventional formation of 4-4-2, with Cameron Jerome and Peter Crouch leading the attack. Robert Huth returned from suspension to partner Ryan Shawcross in central defence.
Everton began slowly, with a slightly disjointed feel to the new formation and Stoke could have easily capitalised in the first few minutes. A throw-in was won and that only meant one thing to Everton, danger. Ryan Shotton launched the throw towards the 6 yard box, and an oncoming Robert Huth forced Howard into a diving save with Jon Walters, a boyhood Blue, then poking the rebound onto the bar, which forced a further scramble that Everton managed to clear. The Toffees then had a number of half chances, with a handball penalty shout being turned down and Nikica Jelavic not managing to find the right connection with a series of headers .
It was mid-way through the first half when the deadlock was broken. Stoke won a set piece and the ball was delivered high into the penalty area, where Tim Howard came out and punched it towards Kevin Mirallas on the halfway line, and with a bit of luck broke away, ran at the Potters defence, skipped past Geoff Cameron and slotted it just past Asmir Begovic to put Everton into the lead. A great solo effort.
The rest of the first half wasn’t short of half chances, with Mirallas going close, Heitinga blasting just over, Jelavic producing a tame freekick and Stoke’s set pieces causing more danger. A correctly disallowed goal for offside, a header going just over and Walters hitting a sweet shot to test Howard’s diving after returning from injury were the men in the Red and White striped shirts best chances. Referee Mike Jones then blew his whistle to end the half with Everton taking the 1 goal advantage.
Early into the second half, Stoke, who had won just 1 in 24 previous away games, weren’t going to change their ways and set pieces were again a threat to the Everton defence. A scramble ensued from a corner but was cleared, a freekick leading to a free header for Huth was put just wide and a free header at the back post for Shotton was badly missed. In the meantime, Mirallas produced a tame effort and Jelavic again didn’t do as well as he should have with a free header.
As Stoke were starting to turn up the pressure with these missed chances, Everton picked up their work rate and were awarded two freekicks in similar areas just outside the opposition penalty area, with one of the efforts going narrowly past the post from Jelavic. Victor Anichebe had two late chances too with a snapshot going wide and just missing connection for a tap in.
Stoke continued to test the Toffees back line with many balls deep into the area but with Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin heading away and John Heitinga sweeping away the loose second ball, the Blues professionally saw out the late stages of the game. The final whistle went and David Moyes’ men got the crucial win to keep the European hopes alive.
Everton go into the next game against Tottenham Hotspur without Fellaini and Pienaar again, but with the confidence of two clean sheets in a row and players looking up for a good challenge.