UEFA Europa League Group I
|AEK Athens 0|
- guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 December 2009 22.05 GMT
When clubs talk of qualifying for Europe, the images conjured up are something other than rain, mud and pain, which were everywhere in this corner of Athens . They were, however, ones that Everton first endured and then overcame to qualify for the knockout phase of the Europa League with one match to spare.
From the moment Diniyar Bilyaletdinov kept his feet on a surface of sodden soil and sand well enough to shoot into the roof of the net, Everton did precisely what they had to do. However, perhaps too appropriately in a country where the phrase was coined, this was something of a Pyrrhic victory.
David Moyes, with his squad already riddled by injuries, lost Sylvain Distin, Dan Gosling and Jô during the course of this encounter, the first two with potentially serious hamstring injuries. Many more wins like this and he will have to think of turning out himself.
"I don't think Jô's injury is serious," Moyes said. "I am concerned about Distin and Dan as both are hamstring strains. We will have them assessed tomorrow. I think the main reason for the injuries is down to overloading them. Sylvain has had to play just about every minute of every game."
This stadium may have been empty enough for the explosion of firecrackers to reverberate like bomb blasts. AEK Athens may have been demoralised by strike action by players who have not been paid for six weeks but the sound of those who had travelled from Merseyside could still be heard from within the room where Moyes reflected on what was only his second victory in a dozen attempts.
Mostly the name they chanted was his. "The conditions out there were just like the old days. I would have enjoyed it out there," he said. "We had to lift the spirits after what was a good performance, despite the result, in the derby.
"This showed there is a heartbeat in this football club. I feel as if there is blood pumping through the veins again. It was tough but it can be the start of something more for us."
The Greek capital can be a strange place in winter. Chelsea arrived in a blizzard for a Champions League encounter with Olympiakos and today Athens resembled a drowned city. Rain had been hammering the streets incessantly with the odd echo of thunder rippling across the Acropolis.
The running track here was a series of vast puddles, the pitch a mixture of sand and mud on which maintaining any sort of footing was an art. The Swiss referee, Claudio Circhetta, had warned that, if the rain did not let up, the game could not be guaranteed.
The fixture was a quarter of an hour old when the downpour stopped, although by then Moyes' defence was in the hands of two rookies, Seamus Coleman and Shane Duffy, with full-back Tony Hibbert employed as a centre-half as he had been in the 2-1 victory over BATE Borisov.
Given the circumstances, this most makeshift of back-fours came through their ordeal admirably. But for a lunging block by Coleman, who looked a far more mature and secure performer than the nervous figure given the dreadfully awkward task of shackling Benfica's Angel Di María in Lisbon, Gustavo Manduca would have equalised for Athens with 20 minutes remaining.
Had there been other options, Distin, who flew to Greece troubled by his hamstring, probably would not have started. In the event the Frenchman lasted 15 minutes while Gosling appeared to catch his studs in a divot and went down heavily. Mud and rain are supposedly conditions which play to the English strengths of sweat and hard work and yet the one who kept his composure better than anyone was the man from São Paulo. It was Jô's control – taking down Tim Cahill's flick-on by the edge of the area and steering it between two defenders, one of whom had a handful of his shirt – that set up Bilyaletdinov. And but for Sebastian Saja's low, full-stretch save, he might have made this game safe before he, too, was taken off on the golf buggy that churned its way regularly on to the field.
Though AEK Athens have been riven by pay disputes, they were still rather more organised than the shambolic side that were overwhelmed at Goodison Park in September. Nevertheless, apart from Coleman's intervention, only occasionally did Tim Howard have to make a save, although when he did the conditions ensured the ball would arrive in a spray of mud and water.
The Europa League may be derided as a forgotten competition but, for Everton, the memories of this win will linger.