Pienaar cures Everton's derby hangover

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

When Everton trudged off at halftime, trailing to a well-taken Leandro Bacuna goal, the after-effects of the derby defeat were plain for all to see. Villa had snatched the lead via their only shot on target, but the football displayed by the home side had alarm bells ringing throughout the half.

- Report: Everton 2-1 Aston Villa

The derby had sucked the confidence out of the players, especially James McCarthy. Such a prominent figure this season, excelling in the midfield alongside Gareth Barry, the summer signing barely featured on or off the ball.

Another player suffering was captain Phil Jagielka, who provided the fourth on a plate for Luis Suarez on Tuesday, with one first half pass sailing out of play while under minimal pressure.

Too many played absent purpose, scared of receiving possession for fear of making the kind of mistake prominent at Anfield earlier in the week. The passing lacked pace and invention, as did the movement, and nobody rose above the malaise.

Luckily, for the majority of those in attendance, there was a noticeable improvement after the interval. The previously subdued McCarthy buzzed around the midfield, while Barry provided the required attacking platform.

Nonetheless, before such improvement could take shape, Everton found themselves behind at the midway point. Attempting to drag his team into the lead, one that would surely have eased the crippling anxiety showcased during the early stages, Ross Barkley conceded possession; Christian Benteke and Bacuna did the rest.

Unfortunately, for the visitors, but fortunately for the Blues, the opening goal represented a false dawn, as Paul Lambert's side employed rather baffling tactics. Counter-attacking is a viable option on the road, but attempting to do so with just 29% possession and a total of 135 completed passes is deeply flawed at best.

Emerging after the break, Roberto Martinez made the first of two game-changing substitutions. Needing to alter his own approach, the manager acted swiftly and decisively with a halftime change. Steven Pienaar replaced the lacklustre Barkley, and the midfielder was the catalyst for the second half revival.

Pienaar is often an easy target for criticism, yet his importance remains undiminished. Whether it is the determination to influence a match or a simple drift infield to enable Leighton Baines to overlap, which became an effective means of attack in the second period, there is nobody able to match his movement and appreciation of space.

Subdued on occasion this season, this was the Baines of old, as him and Pienaar wreaked havoc on a hapless, poorly-supported Bacuna. Baines broke forward at will, looked to create, and was clearly enjoying his football. Perhaps the new contract has lifted the weighty, incessant media-driven speculation off his shoulders.

For the equaliser, Pienaar reminded those in attendance of his subtlety in possession with a clever flick, which fellow substitute Steven Naismith matched with a finish of equal quality via the outside of his right foot.

Much-maligned, tending to look lost unless in the opposing penalty area, there are signs of Naismith finding a modicum of form in recent outings. Providing a much-needed focal point in attack, the introduction of the Scot also allowed Kevin Mirallas to return to his favoured midfield role.

Frustrated for large periods by a combination of the linesman's flag and a lack of service, Mirallas cut a forlorn figure leading the line. Dropped deeper, with Villa switching their focus to Naismith, the Belgian grew in influence as the final whistle neared.

Driving at the heart of the Villa defence until a clumsy challenge ended his progress, Mirallas dusted himself down and curled another exquisite 30-yard free kick beyond despaired visiting goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

Elsewhere, with a critical trip to Tottenham on the horizon, the defence found itself boosted by the return of Sylvain Distin to the starting line-up and the sight of Seamus Coleman on the bench.

Martinez labelled this as his most satisfying victory thus far, and it is hard to argue against this viewpoint. Following on from the bitter blow of Tuesday, anything other than maximum points threatened to further damage confidence.

Having ground this one out in a manner reminiscent of several recent wins -- indifferent performances lit up by goals of genuine quality -- this result, which looked out of reach for long periods, keeps Everton firmly in the European picture.


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