Sport

Anwar El Ghazi strike lifts Aston Villa and dents Everton’s European hopes

The story of Everton’s season can be told in their last two games. After the historic away win came a demoralising home defeat. After progress came regression. After an opportunity was created, it was wasted.

Everton have triumphed at Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal but they have a solitary win in 10 league outings at Goodison Park in 2021 and the worst home record in the top half of the Premier League. It will almost certainly cost them Champions League football and potentially the place in Europe that Carlo Ancelotti has long cited as his aim.

“It is unbelievable, the run we had away and the run we had at home,” said the Italian. And yet it felt entirely typical that Everton could lose to a team who have less to play for, though Anwar El Ghazi’s glorious decider capped Aston Villa’s enterprising, attacking display. This was a rare occasion when Dean Smith’s side definitely did not miss the injured Jack Grealish.

“We were not good,” was Ancelotti’s succinct analysis. “The attitude was wrong from the beginning. The way we made a lot of mistakes – no balance, no concentration; it was not a good evening.” Their margin of defeat could have been much greater.

Of the three watching managers, two – Smith and Gareth Southgate – had more to enjoy than Ancelotti. The England head coach has long been steadfast in his loyalty to Jordan Pickford so this was less likely to alter his thinking than crystallise it. But if the goalkeeper’s Everton career has been decidedly mixed, he in a rich vein of form. After a terrific display at Arsenal came five first-half saves that showed agility and reliability in equal measure; his was a damage-limitation exercise amid chaotic entertainment.

A double stop from Bertrand Traoré involved him first coming off his line to block and then recovering to retreat and claw away the resulting chip. He made a trio of excellent saves to deny Ollie Watkins, another who found space behind Everton’s defence at will, even if the best was a close-range effort to parry a diving header. El Ghazi struck the rebound against the bar and with Ross Barkley drilling a low drive against a post, Villa hit the woodwork twice.

The fact that Watkins had eight shots in the first half alone was testament to his persistence and elusiveness but an indictment of his finishing – “I should be leaving the pitch with two or three goals,” he admitted – and of Everton’s defence. Ancelotti persisted with the back four who had shut Arsenal out but was given reason to regret those choices by an abject display. “A completely different performance,” he lamented. Mason Holgate and Ben Godfrey, he conceded, “had a lot of problems against Watkins.”

A policy of playing out from the back had threatened to prove their undoing even before they conceded. “Ollie Watkins is one of the best pressing forwards in the Premier League,” said Smith. So he proved. When Holgate took a pass from Godfrey and turned into trouble, he was dispossessed by Watkins, who rolled his shot in. “He was outstanding,” said Smith.

At which stage, it was advantage Watkins in the battle to impress Southgate and secure the spot as Harry Kane’s understudy in the Euro 2020 squad. It was Watkins’ third goal in five games whereas Dominic Calvert-Lewin had only three in his previous 16. But the Everton top scorer soon illustrated his attributes. He met Lucas Digne’s corner with a towering header to level.

Everton had lost James Rodríguez to injury in the warm-up. Digne assumed his creative responsibilities and provided a second enticing cross for Calvert-Lewin; his diving header was superbly repelled by Emi Martínez. But Digne had defensive difficulties against the electric Traoré. It was the right-winger who found El Ghazi when he curled in a 20-yard shot. “Anwar showed the class he had,” said Smith. Everton showed their frailties. Ancelotti concluded: “We are still in the fight but it is more and more difficult.”