Aston Villa 1 Everton 1
Perception is everything in football and so it proved here at Villa Park last night. While Aston Villa's point against Everton only marginally aids their cause in their bid for consolidation, the feeling of victory circulated the pitch like a Mexican wave.
Gabriel Agbonlahor's equaliser in the 83rd minute, coming after sustained pressure and heightened excitement, emphasised the sense of justice at a time when there was a real fear that the season might end with a fight to avoid relegation.
Villa might only have won two of their past 20 matches, since defeating Everton at Goodison Park on November 11, but there are signs that they are moving in the right direction. Joleon Lescott's early goal might have given Everton a deserved lead but, by the end, a victory for Villa would have been more appropriate.
If there was any temptation to tinker with his starting line-up, Martin O'Neill resisted it. He began with the same team that began the match against Liverpool two weeks before. The difference on this occasion, however, was that Ashley Young worked closer to John Carew, which was designed to give Villa more presence up front.
Everton arrived with Andrew Johnson, their former Birmingham City centre-forward, who was jeered whenever he went near the ball. It helped to create a good atmosphere, as did the novelty of what was only Villa's fourth match since their trip to Reading on February 10.
It would not be wholly accurate to say that the lack of match practice caused Villa to look nervous at the start as Everton looked the more comfortable in the early stages.
Even before Villa mounted anything that resembled a clear-cut chance, Everton took the lead through Lescott in the 15th minute. Mikel Arteta's free kick from the left was deflected by Gary Cahill towards the far post to where Lescott, unmarked, was able to head the ball home. It was his first goal for the club since moving to Goodison from Wolverhampton Wanderers last summer.
Lescott was one of three Birmingham-born players in the Everton team, along with James Vaughan and Johnson.
His goal was also the prelude to a period of sustained pressure from Villa. Stiliyan Petrov's shot from 25 yards in the 18th minute was saved by Tim Howard, and, a minute later, Young came closer when he stabbed the ball wide from eight yards out after Carew's dominance in the air ruffled the Everton defenders.
Gareth Barry was lively for Villa, Gavin McCann was his usual stoical self, and Villa did most of their best work down their left-hand side. Their crossing might have had a greater effect had Joseph Yobo, the Everton defender, not been so impressive.
Everton were keen to test Thomas Sorensen, the Villa goalkeeper, from long range. Leon Osman struck a shot wide, as did Phil Neville, while another shot by Osman on the stroke of half-time was turned aside by Sorensen.
With Young limping off injured and replaced by Shaun Maloney, and the players booed off at the interval, there was clearly a need for one of O'Neill's team talks. His first response was to bring on Patrik Berger, Villa's perennial substitute, in place of McCann, who had become increasingly disillusioned against his former club.
Whatever O'Neill said, it initially had the desired effect, and Carew came close to scoring in the 49th minute when he controlled by cross by Maloney on his chest, turned, and struck a shot that was parried by Howard. With Carew seemingly set to convert the loose ball, Howard stretched out a hand to avert the danger.
The Everton goalkeeper was enjoying a charmed spell, for he also saved at the feet of Agbonlahor a minute later.
Villa created more chances in the opening five mintues of the second half than they did in the whole of the first, which owed much to the pace and creativity of Maloney on the right flank. When he broke clear and crossed towards the near post in the 50th minute, Carew just failed to make a meaningful touch.
The improvement in play brought out the enthusiasm among those in the Holte End, who relished the increase in pace.
Villa deserved an equaliser but found, in Howard, a nemesis. And the more Villa pressed, the better the Everton defenders performed.
Whether by accident or designed, O'Neill had found a Villa team with better balance. Berger provided the creativity that had previously been missing and Maloney provided the dexterity. But there was hope in the air and the optimism was justified when, with just seven minutes remaining, Agbonlahor equalised for Villa after a goalmouth scramble.
With Howard grounded and Everton all over the show, Agbonlahor kept his composure to slide the ball home from ten yards out. The sense of joy was eclipsed only by the sense of justice.
Scorers: Lescott (15) 0-1, Agbonlahor (83) 1-1.
ASTON VILLA (4-3-2-1): Sorensen; Bardsley, Mellberg, Cahill, Bouma; Petrov, McCann (Berger, 46), Barry; Agbonlahor, Young (Maloney, 39); Carew. Substitutes: Taylor, Davis, Hughes.
EVERTON (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Yobo, Stubbs, Lescott; Arteta, Neville, Carsley, Vaughan; Johnson, Osman. Substitutes: Wright, Naysmith, Beattie, Valente, Anichebe.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).
Bookings: Villa — McCann (foul), Agbonlahor (ungentlemanly conduct); Everton — Vaughton, Arteta, Lescott (fouls).
Villa man of the match: Shaun Maloney — did enough to warrant a place in the starting line-up for the next match.