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Feb 15, 2009

Running on reserves

There is something disconcerting about seeing David Moyes smile. Perhaps it is because it does not seem to happen often, perhaps because he seems better suited to scowling. Of late, however, there has been a grin on his often fearsome features with remarkable regularity.

That was not merely the result of reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in his seven-year reign. Satisfaction came from both the result and the performance in overcoming Aston Villa. A manager who has often been right recently was proved wrong by his own players.

"To be without [Leon] Osman, [Steven] Pienaar and [Marouane] Fellaini, it made me feel as though today was going to be one [game] too many," he admitted. "I wasn't sure how I was going to get a blend or a balance to the team. Credit to the players. They adapted."

They always seem to. Yet the circumstances were scarcely auspicious. The club record buy is added to a lengthy injury list. The new striker is cup-tied, while most of the other forwards are sidelined. The regular midfielders on either flank are absent for different reasons. Grounds for complaint, or an opportunity for others?

At Everton, it is the latter. A paucity of resources does not result in a poor performance. An under-strength squad does not equate to underachievement. So whenever another manager whinges about a small squad or a lack of finances, he should be confronted with Moyes' recent record. The more players he is missing, the more Everton achieve and the more the understudies and unknowns manage.

In all probability, had everyone been available, Dan Gosling, Jack Rodwell and Victor Anichebe would have been confined to bit-part roles in Everton's FA Cup run. Instead, Gosling delivered the derby winner to knock out Liverpool, Rodwell supplied the opening goal against Aston Villa and Anichebe earned assists for the other two.

They are a trio who might have been marginalised at clubs with larger squads, but they merit much of the credit for Everton's place in the quarter-finals. Gosling was a surprise choice as the left winger, but he proved an effective and energetic option there. Rodwell proved calm and unflustered in his role as the holding midfielder. Anichebe was the battering ram who smashed the door to the last eight open.

"Victor played really well," said Moyes. "Jack's sometimes nearly horizontal, he's that laid-back. He's a real good boy and wants to improve. He's the sort of player many teams are all looking for. By the time he's 23 or 24 he could be a really good centre-half." Moyes is essentially a pragmatist, yet a comparison to Rio Ferdinand followed.

These are heady days for the 17-year-old, who opened his Everton account in the fourth minute. He lifted the rebound into the roof of the net after Stiliyan Petrov had handled Tim Cahill's header on the goal line. His finish spared Villa the Bulgarian an early exit, and Martin Atkinson a major decision.

Two more were unavoidable. When Tony Hibbert chopped down Gabriel Agbonlahor, he awarded a penalty that James Milner just converted. At the other end, the marauding Anichebe, producing a bullish display of pace and power that was reminiscent of the absent Emile Heskey, charged beyond the two central defenders and was fouled by Steve Sidwell. It was the second successive game at Goodison Park to feature two spot kicks and Mikel Arteta dispatched his rather comfortably.

Anichebe, summoned from exile after what might politely be called a contretemps with Moyes, completed his contribution with a curling cross that Curtis Davies failed to cut out and Cahill converted. Before then, each of Agbonlahor, John Carew and Sidwell could have levelled. "Obviously the killer goal was the third," said Martin O'Neill. "But the turning point was the save from Howard from Carew."

It was an outstanding stop, but Howard was well protected. Indeed, there were signs of Moyes' attention to detail. Mindful of Ashley Young's devastating display when Villa last visited Goodison Park, he deployed Phil Neville on the right of midfield to shield Tony Hibbert. Young did fashion one glorious chance for Agbonlahor, but he was quieter than on his previous visit to Merseyside. It was notable, too, that when Howard took goal kicks, Cahill and Anichebe peeled away to the flanks to contest headers with the full-backs. It was all part of Everton's careful planning.

And it ended a 36-year unbeaten run that began for a teenaged replacement for Nottingham Forest in 1972. O'Neill had never lost at Goodison Park in 11 previous visits as player and manager. For him, this was an unfortunate 12th trip. "I thought we were unlucky," he added. A beaming Moyes felt Everton merited victory, and it was hard to disagree.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Mikel Arteta - The first two goals came, directly or indirectly, from the Spaniard's set pieces and he troubled Villa throughout. It was indicative of his excellence, and his standing with his team-mates, that Phil Neville led the standing ovation when he was substituted in stoppage time.

• EVERTON VERDICT: There were excellent performances all over the pitch, and Moyes was right in his liberal sprinkling of praise in his players' direction. Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka were terrific again in the centre of defence, Arteta and Rodwell dovetailed well in midfield and Cahill and Anichebe proved a fine combination in attack.

• ASTON VILLA VERDICT: The spine of the side was weakened with Gareth Barry banned and Martin Laursen injured. Villa missed both, as well as three crucial chances when Everton's lead was only 2-1. Nevertheless, Moyes said: "I saw bits from Villa today that made me realise how they score so many goals. Hopefully both of us can try and challenge. Maybe it's not the top four, maybe it's the top five or six."

• WAY TO GO, JO: Football managers often leave games early. Today, Jo arrived late. The cup-tied striker, showing that the sense of timing he displayed at Manchester City has not deserted him, took his seat when it was 1-1. His silver-sequined top, with 'God' on the back, was equally notable. It wasn't a nickname often applied to the Brazilian at the City of Manchester Stadium.

• SHANKS FOR THE MEMORIES: Milner became the first visiting player to score a penalty in the FA Cup at Goodison Park for 62 years. His predecessor, then a Preston wing-half rather than an icon at Anfield, was one Bill Shankly.

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