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Jan 30, 2013

Reliable Baines continues Everton rise

A difficult day had a satisfying ending for David Moyes. The collapse of a deal to sign FC Twente midfielder Leroy Fer was an undoubted disappointment for Everton's manager. But neither he nor his team are given to feeling sorry for themselves.

When they suffer a setback, Everton's philosophy under Moyes is to knuckle down and get on with the job. When times are tough, they show strength of character. It is the chief reason that they have lost only three of 24 Premier League matches this season. And no one typifies that quiet determination more than Leighton Baines.

Everton's left-back has been their outstanding player this season. When they needed something to help them forget about the Fer disappointment, he popped up with two goals; one a reward for his spirit of adventure, the other a calmly converted penalty. It secured a victory over West Brom that lifted Everton to within one point of the Champions League spots. Not bad for a player who has been playing on, without fuss, despite an ankle injury.

"He's carrying his ankle a bit, but he misses no training and he gets on with it," Moyes said. "He's great for a manager, because he wants to get better himself. He wants to keep improving."

With Everton's strikers struggling for goals, and the out-of-form Nikica Jelavic dropped to the bench, Baines' intervention came in handy. Although he can strike a mean free-kick and a nerveless penalty, the left-back is better known for his assists than his goals. But he profited against a West Brom side who appear to have forgotten how to defend.

In all competitions, Albion have kept one clean sheet in 16 games. Since Christmas, they have conceded an average of two goals a game in the Premier League. At one stage, Steve Clarke looked as if he might lead West Brom into Champions League contention. They were third in late November, but have won only two of 11 league matches since.

The uncertainty over Peter Odemwingie's future has left a cloud hanging over The Hawthorns in recent days, but Albion's troubles have been brewing for a little longer. The manager could not have cited the absence of Odemwingie, left at home for family reasons, as an excuse for this defeat.

For a former defender like Clarke, such generosity hurts. His side had already survived two scares, with the ball looping just over when Victor Anichebe charged down a Billy Jones clearance and Marouane Fellaini hitting the outside of the post when they allowed Baines to give Everton a 29th-minute lead.

The defender's spirit of adventure carried him towards the penalty area after collecting Leon Osman's pass on the left 40 yards from goal. But Jones and his fellow Albion defender Gareth McAuley were too slow to close him down, inviting the shot that was fired past keeper Ben Foster from the edge of the area.

"I thought we were comfortable in the game and then we gave away a bad goal," Clarke said, although he was quick to pay tribute to Baines. "Leighton Baines has had a fantastic season. We knew he was a threat. We knew he was capable of the goal he scored tonight. We were hopeful that in our preparation, we'd done enough to stop us losing that type of goal."

Of equal concern to Clarke was the injury suffered by midfielder George Thorne, carried off on a stretcher after twisting his knee.

"It doesn't look good," admitted the Albion manager , who will await the result of a scan. To add insult, Albion conceded a second goal in the time added on for Thorne's treatment, via a penalty given away by the player who replaced him. Claudio Yacob, who did not have a good night, gave Anichebe a nudge a couple of feet inside the penalty area. Referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot, and Baines sent Foster the wrong way.

"He's a really good footballer. He's intelligent," said Moyes, who still managed to find a criticism of his left-back. "I don't know if I like his hairstyle, but apart from that, I think he's all right."

Everton should have wrapped up victory comfortably after that. Instead, they were forced to endure a jittery final half hour because of a mistake by the man who was their hero at the weekend. It has been a mixed week for Johnny Heitinga. On Saturday, the defender came on as a late substitute to score an FA Cup fourth-round winner at Bolton. This time, he gave away a goal.

Only Heitinga knew what he was trying to do as he stopped Romelu Lukaku's shot on the line. The Albion striker, on loan from Chelsea, had shot tamely towards goal after reaching Chris Brunt's through pass and going round keeper Tim Howard. It looked as though the danger had passed. Heitinga, though, made a mess of controlling the ball, which looped into the air off his foot, allowing Shane Long to head in.

Albion, ineffective to that stage, saw an opportunity to snatch a point. They might have had it too, had Graham Dorrans' free-kick not crashed against the bar three minutes after Long's goal.

Everton had their chances to put the game to bed, but couldn't take them. Leon Osman missed the best one, blazing a shot over from in front of goal after Steven Pienaar had hit the post. Moyes' men, though, managed to see the job through. It was a triumph for grit.

"Games in the Premier League are tight," Moyes said. "You have to earn it, and there were times in the second half where we had to earn it by making sure we defended well enough and did the dirty work."

MAN OF THE MATCH: Leighton Baines. Two goals for Everton's left-back capped a performance that combined defensive steel with attacking verve in equal measure. Another excellent display from a player who has been outstanding all season.

EVERTON VERDICT: David Moyes' side could, and should, have had a more comfortable night after going in two goals up at half-time. One moment of defensive sloppiness by John Heitinga made life more difficult, and the nerves were there for all to see after that. Victory, though, was deserved.

WEST BROM VERDICT: Ineffective for an hour, with Romelu Lukaku isolated as a lone striker, Albion gave their opponents a far harder time when Shane Long came on to offer some support in attack. Steve Clarke's eye for a tactical switch shows him to be one of the Premier League's smartest coaches, but their defence looks incredibly shaky.

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