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Moyes masters defensive art

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Phil McNulty | 19:03 GMT, Sunday, 25 January 2009

Everton's resurgence in reduced circumstances has gone almost unnoticed amid the switches of fortune in the title race and the managerial spats across Stanley Park - but two displays at Liverpool sum up the renaissance fashioned by manager David Moyes.

Moyes took Everton to Anfield for a Premier League game on Monday stripped of virtually all of his attacking resources and without suspended £15m midfield man Marouane Fellaini.

Everton earned a draw at Anfield courtesy of Tim Cahill's late header, and returned for Sunday's FA Cup fourth round tie still without Fellaini but further depleted by the loss of influential midfield orchestrator Mikel Arteta.

No-one would suggest Everton did anything other than mount a rearguard action to earn a replay at Goodison Park, but equally no-one should diminish the standard of their defensive excellence.

For a team with no strikers, Everton have found a way of - for now at least - avoiding defeat.

Liverpool spent much of the Cup encounter camped in Everton's half, but through a combination of bravery, sound defence and in-bred resilience, they lived to fight another day, a day when Moyes will hope he can field a stronger side.

And it was only an uncharacteristic error from Tim Howard that gave Steven Gerrard - again Liverpool's brilliant inspiration - the chance to remove the blue shield of defensive resistance from in front of Everton's keeper.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez clearly regarded Everton's tactics as a huge irritant, but he actually should have recognised facets of some of his own team's most successful European missions in how Moyes set up his team and carried out their gameplan.

And to criticise Everton's tactics while ignoring his own team's obvious defensive flaw suggests he is taking aim at the wrong target.

Benitez may in fact be better employed asking his own defenders how Cahill, not exactly Everton's secret weapon, once again arrived unmarked in the penalty area to set up Lescott's goal.

Liverpool deserved a draw at the very least, but it would have been harsh on heroes such as Lescott and his defensive sidekick Phil Jagielka had Everton lost.

It was ironic that Everton were caught on the break and almost conceded a late goal to Dirk Kuyt, only for the striker to shoot tamely at Howard. This would have been the most galling manner of defeat for Moyes, given his attention to defensive detail and his team's determination not to be caught off guard.

Lescott has had a mysteriously uncertain England career, never looking the player he does for Everton at international level. Here, however, he was magnificent in front of watching England coach Fabio Capello.

And Jagielka did his chances of adding to a single England cap not the slightest harm with his second outstanding defensive display against Fernando Torres in a week.

Everton celebrate Lescott's goal

I was rightly taken to task by a journalistic colleague for describing Jagielka as "limited" during the league draw at Anfield. A poor choice of word - he is a player who knows his limitations and performs outstandingly within them.

This is not damning Jagielka with faint praise. It is a simple statement of fact.

Liverpool will hope to tease Everton out of their defensive shell on home territory in the replay, but it has taken the driving force of Gerrard to unlock them twice inside a week and it is hard to see Moyes throwing caution out of the window in the replay.

Moyes has played the role of pragmatist after losing Yakubu for the season, James Vaughan until at least the closing stages of the campaign and Louis Saha to sadly predictable injury problems.

He has restored the reliable, unfussy Tony Hibbert at right-back, pushed Phil Neville into a midfield anchor role and released Cahill into a more advanced attacking position, playing the dual part of striker and auxiliary midfield man.

It is a role for which the Australian is perfectly cast, as an ever-willing runner, a non-stop nuisance (defenders may use other less kindly descriptions) and an uncanny poacher of penalty area trifles.

And all this is deployed within a no-frills framework of strict discipline and tireless endeavour.

Everton were robbed of much artistry and creation with Arteta's withdrawal, but the twin defensive towers of Lescott and Jagielka meant they were still tough to breach at the back.

Liverpool will fancy their chances of progressing, and they may indeed be better suited to taking Everton on at Goodison Park, but it also time for Moyes to receive credit for his work with a paper-thin squad that he has guided into sixth place in the Premier League and kept in the FA Cup.

If chairman Bill Kenwright can actually come up with some resources for Moyes to make an impact in the closing days before the transfer window shuts, it would give a squad built to a large degree on team spirit an extra, crucial, dimension.

The other main talking point to emerge from the Cup tie was the exclusion, from a list of 18 players, of Liverpool's £20m summer signing Robbie Keane.

Keane had a miserable night against Everton on Monday, but it is a grim sign for his long-term Anfield future that David Ngog was regarded as a better bet on the bench than Keane.

Everton's defence will take the plaudits for earning a replay - Keane must now wait to see if he even gets the chance to influence it.


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