There will be many twists and turns yet but a hard earned, as well as controversial, victory over Wigan Athletic ensured Everton reached the halfway stage of the season with qualification for next season’s Champions League a realistic prospect.
Goals by Leon Osman, with the aid of a heavy deflection off Gary Caldwell’s hand, and Phil Jagielka earned David Moyes a third win in four games and left Wigan once again facing a fight against relegation during the second half of the campaign.
Should Everton overcome Rafael Benitez’s Chelsea at Goodison Park on Sunday, then they will start 2013 in third place in the table and well placed to earn a place at the top table of European football in 2013-14.
Not that Moyes is allowing himself to look too far ahead, despite delivering a glowing half-term report after overcoming Wigan.
“I’m happy with how well the players have done, they’ve done very well,” he said.
“In the past we would have drawn a lot of games like this. Wigan are a good side and will cause teams problems. But now we have to try and push on.”
This was far from vintage Everton, more a hard-working victory over determined opponents who were better than their position in the relegation zone suggests.
Shaun Maloney and Ronnie Stam forced home keeper Tim Howard into decent saves while Darron Gibson, who was cleared to play after Everton appealed his red card at West Ham last weekend, lasted 45 minutes before being replaced after suffering a thigh problem.
It required a touch of fortune to set Everton on their way.
Home fans were becoming irritated when Osman provided the 52nd minute breakthrough, the England international afforded far too much space on the edge of the area before his shot was deflected into the net in off Gary Caldwell’s hand.
Everton’s luck continued. Wigan thought they had won a penalty when the busy Maloney went down inside the box after Osman’s 58th minute challenge, both managers admitting afterwards that referee Lee Mason should have pointed to the spot.
“From where I was in the dugout, it did look like a penalty,” was Moyes’s honest assessment.
Roberto Martinez was rather more forceful in his view of the incident.
“There was clearly contact,” the Wigan manager said. “Shaun Maloney didn’t look for the penalty because he was in a great position and didn’t need to dive.
“I could hear the contact from where I was and I was bemused the referee didn’t give the decision.”
Wigan’s day went from bad to worse.
Phil Neville marked his 500th Premier League appearance by denying Arouna Kone a 66th minute equaliser with a close range block. Neville then provided the 77th minute cross for Jagielka to head Everton into a commanding 2-0 lead.
Wigan did reduce the deficit five minutes later when Kone top-poked over the line from close range but Everton were able to hold on.
EVERTON: Howard 6, Neville 7, Jagielka 8, Distin 6, Baines 7, Osman 7, Hitzlsperger 7 (Heitinga 70, 5), Gibson 6 (Naismith 46, 6), Pienaar 6, Anichebe 6 (Oviedo 70, 5), Jelavic 6.
WIGAN ATHLETIC: Al Habsi 6, Boyce 6, Caldwell 6, Figueroa 6, Stam 6 (Gomez 70, 4), McArthur 6, McCarthy 6, Jones 6 (Di Santo 72, 4), Beausejour 6, Maloney 7, Kone 6.
Referee: Lee Mason 5
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