Everton 2 Tottenham 1: Sunday would not be Sunday in the Premier League without the screaming finale. Everton followed Manchester United across the line, scoring twice with 90 minutes on the clock to wrench fourth place from Spurs and send manager David Moyes into a kind of pagan stomp on the touchline. The Moyes stare can be forbidding on quiet afternoons; when the blood is pumping like this those flame-thrower eyes could ignite a barn from 50 paces.
Spurs were neither full value for their lead nor flattered by it. Andre Villas-Boas was quietly rubbing his hands in the warm glow of what looked to be a fourth successive victory when his pocket was picked by a lusty Steven Pienaar header and an opportunistic stab from Nikica Jelavic. The goals conformed to a trend to which he has no answer. Ten of the 18 goals Spurs have conceded this season have come in the last 15 minutes. Had they been able to maintain at full time the scores at 80 minutes, Spurs and not United would be top of the league this morning.
"It was a tough blow to take," Villas-Boas said. "We were in control, kept the ball and were looking to see out the game. It is all about the small details. Everton were a bit more aggressive in the final minutes. It is difficult to explain. It is something we are aware of and something we need to improve. The goals came during our best period, but we couldn't stop every long ball coming in. And at 1-1 I knew what to expect."
Moyes was justified in his elation if not representative in his view that Everton were a fecund reservoir of opportunities. This was an unremarkable encounter rescued from mediocrity by the blistering finish. Everton fell behind to a speculative effort from Clint Dempsey in the 76th minute, which took a slight deflection off Sylvain Distin before looping over goalkeeper Tim Howard. Gylfi Sigurdsson might have doubled the lead with a shot curled onto the bar with four minutes of normal time remaining.
And then the goal rush, first Pienaar stooping to power a header past Hugo Lloris from 15 yards then Jelavic diverting an attempted scissor-kick from Apostolos Vellios into the net for only Everton's second win in 10 games.
"That feels as good as we have had," Moyes said. "We have lost a few like that so we were due one. We played terrifically well, especially in the first half, but we could not find the pass to kill it off.
"The position [fourth] does not shame us. But we could quite easily have slipped out. It feels good today. It shows the belief in persistence. We have great character and this gives us a great lift. We kept at it in the last period when we were not at our best. We had tried everything by then, but we got there in the end."
The result was at least in keeping with a Goodison Park festooned in Yuletide trappings for the final home game this side of Christmas. There were Santas dressed in blue and brass bands banging out Christmas standards. At no point, however, did the Christmas cheer permeate the pitch in the early exchanges. The match was finely balanced, with neither team able to find the ball to open defences.Too often the man on the overlap failed to take responsibility for the ball at his feet and rushed the attempted cross. Balls hit first time in hope are meat and drink to defenders of this stature.
Overlapping Seamus Coleman was a repeat offender for Everton as was Jan Vertonghen for Spurs. The one clear-cut chance early in the piece was fashioned by Everton. Darron Gibson released Jelavic but the break was spotted by the alert Lloris, who sprinted off his line to dive bravely at the feet of the advancing striker and block with his arms.
The first-half stalemate was personified by the chest-to-chest body lock in which Belgium's twin towers Mousa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini engaged. Neither would allow the other to advance an inch. The spell was broken only when the ball spilled marginally in Everton's favour. It was that kind of encounter, two evenly-matched sides chained by the desire not to lose ground to each other in the pursuit of the final Champions League spot.
As the half closed Everton were denied two legitimate penalty claims when first Dempsey and then more obviously William Gallas used arms to repel attacks. Referee Kevin Friend saw nothing illegal in either incident and was predictably booed from the field at half-time.
The arm wrestle continued after the break. Steven Naismith, on for hamstring victim Kevin Mirallas, scuffed a shot at the far post after a Leighton Baines effort was blocked. At the other end Vertonghen stretched Howard with a stinging free-kick. Thereafter the ball was reclaimed by the hustlers patrolling the dense space between the boxes. Only when Dempsey seized his opportunity to strike for goal was the game freed from the straitjacket that had contained it. But none could foresee the conclusion about to unfold.
The result halts a run of seven draws in nine for Everton and reclaims at least some of the optimism sparked in the opening game with victory over Manchester United. But fourth is theirs by virtue only of goal difference and, as Moyes acknowledged, means little in December.