Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

AEK Athens 0 Everton 1

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov's early goal was enough to give Everton a vital victory over AEK Athens which sealed a place in the last 32 of the Europa League for David Moyes' team.

Bilyaletdinov raced on to Jo's brilliant through-ball to slot past AEK goalkeeper Sebastian Saja with aplomb after just six minutes, and the Russian midfielder's goal proved the difference on a rain-soaked evening at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

The result, combined with Group I leaders Benfica's 2-1 win over BATE Borisov, means the Toffees have qualified for the knockout stage as section runners-up with a game to spare.

It remains to be seen at what cost Everton's return to winning ways after just one win in 11 previous games has come at, however, as defenders Dan Gosling and Sylvain Distin, along with Jo, were all forced off due to injuries.

A heavy downpour just before kick-off meant the already fragile pitch deteriorated further, and surface water troubled both teams as the rain continued to fall throughout the first half.

Despite the difficult conditions, the visitors, featuring a makeshift central defensive pairing of Distin and Tony Hibbert - who equalled Everton's European appearance record of 19 matches previously held by Colin Harvey and Brian Labone - opened the scoring with their first shot on target in the sixth minute.

Bilyaletdinov lashed the ball past Saja after collecting Jo's pass following great hold-up play by the Brazilian striker.

Everton were hit with the first injury blow when Gosling departed in the 11th minute to be replaced by Jose Baxter after falling awkwardly.

Next to leave the pitch seven minutes later was Distin, who was a doubt beforehand due to his hamstring strain. The Frenchman was replaced by Shane Duffy and Moyes must have been left wondering who would be next.

AEK desperately tried to regroup but the best they could manage was a Pantelis Kafes header which looped a couple of feet over Tim Howard's crossbar.

Players were dropping like flies with AEK midfielder Grigoris Makos submitting to an ankle injury just before the half-hour mark, former Benfica man Gustavo Manduca replacing him.

It took 32 minutes for the hosts to register a shot on target but Howard was equal to Panagiotis Tachtsidis' long-range effort, parrying the young striker's shot to safety.

Everton seemed content to sit back on their advantage, while looking to catch AEK on the counter-attack by hitting passes into the spaces down the flanks where Jo and Bilyaletdinov were constantly troubling the home side's rearguard.

Nacho Scocco replaced Leonardo at half-time as AEK coach Dusan Bajevic tried to freshen up his attack, but Everton remained comfortably in control.

When AEK did break forward in the 54th minute, Hibbert was on hand to block Tachtsidis' shot on the turn from close range. The visitors almost conceded just before the hour mark, though, when Youssouf Hersi was given time and space to shoot from the edge of the penalty area, the Dutch midfielder's shot shaving Howard's left post.

Jo responded immediately for Everton, Saja doing well to tip the Brazilian's powerful shot around his left post. That was the striker's last contribution, however, as he also limped out of the match with what seemed like a knee injury with Ayegbeni Yakubu replacing him.

It was becoming a backs-to-the-wall affair for Everton as the hosts threw everything at them, and Howard had Baxter to thank after the substitute cleared Manduca's shot off the line with 14 minutes left.

But the visitors held firm under intense pressure in the closing stages to secure the win.

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