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Football: Only home comfort is chance to start again; West Ham 2 Everton 1.

Byline: DAVID PRIOR

IF NOTHING else, Everton are doing an excellent job at managing expectations this season. Just when there's a glimpse of sun on the horizon, the clouds come racing back again.

It was defeat at West Brom that served as the first great dampener, successfully extinguishing all the optimism generated by late autumn victories over Birmingham and Middlesbrough.

Now it's an ill-timed home defeat that will have the same effect, coming as it does after results against Newcastle, Blackburn and Manchester United that had dared to provoke thoughts of a belated charge up the table.

Not yet, it seems. For while much credit should be given to Alan Pardew and his West Ham side last night, the ease with which Everton squandered their lead and then so ineffectually sought to restore their advantage should act as a sharp reminder that the problems of early season are far from eradicated.

This should have been the night that Everton, having done so much good work on their travels recently, returned home in some triumph and used their game in hand to maintain an upward momentum.

In returning to last season's vintage, to those qualities of miserly defence and stealthy attack, the last three games had seemingly offered a glimpse to the future that this campaign would now fulfil.

But while this was nowhere near as bad as the Hawthorns debacle, it's plain to see that this season is not going to be so simple.

The peaks and troughs are evidently here to stay.

Thankfully, Everton have an almost instant chance to make amends.

Bolton visit on Saturday for a game which now assumes greater significance if Moyes's men are not to find themselves drifting back towards the drop zone. After all if third-from-bottom Birmingham win their game in handthey're just two points behind Evertont's also a chance to prove that the syndrome that is so often seen as fatal for Premiership strugglers - a failure to win their home games - is merely a passing problem, not an inbuilt disease.

So far, the statistics do suggest the latter. A measly four goals in seven home league games - two desperately hard-fought 1-0 wins and the Chelsea draw providing the only respite - is the kind of form that Everton must turn around. The away form will not continue to bail them out all season.

It had all started so promisingly last night. Everton were unchanged from Old Trafford, which while rewarding Sunday's commendable display was probably more a result of uncertainties over Mikel Arteta's knee, with the Spaniard restricted to a place on the bench for his comeback from a one-match suspension.

During the build-up to the match, Moyes had pinpointed the sudden emergence of a few goals as the main reason behind his side's improvement, and with just nine minutes on the clock his point was clinically emphasised once again.

James Beattie had already spurned one chance, failing to get on the end of Tony Hibbert's bouncing cross, but he made amends after a quality move that implied that the confidence picked up at Ewood Park and Old Trafford had been brought back home

It was that man James McFadden again, who after his successive goals at Blackburn and United turned provider with apowerful run down the left channelven a few months ago the Scot's surge would doubtless have ended in anticlimax, but he looks a smarter player now - something Moyesalso highlighted before the game - and again he chose the rightoption here, slipping an excellent ball in that Beattie, pulling away from James Collins, turned past Roy Carroll.

An early goal is normally enough to guarantee Everton a smooth passage through a game, but such optimistic feeling was soon deflated by two unfortunateincidents. First McFadden was forced off having damaged a foot attempting to correct some leadfooted control, and then the visitors drew level.

It was Thomas Repka who had sent in the original cross from the right, but there was little danger inherent in the Czechoslovakian's supply until Marlon Harewood and Nuno Valente combined to miss it altogether, the ball ricocheting off an unsuspecting Weir and bouncing beyond a wrong-footed Richard Wright.

Moyes chose to criticise his defence afterwards, but it was the absent luck, rather than any absent defender, that was chiefly responsible.

It was a break that neither the skipper, excellent in recentweeks, nor Everton, deserved. Somewhat stunned, the home side began to lose some of their earlier shape, with substitute Marcus Bent failing to provide the same attacking threat that McFadden had and West Ham, and in particular Marlon Harewood, causing more problems at the other end.

The loss of cohesion continued after the break, with the Hammers gaining more of a foothold in the game Harewood should have done better with a free header after Hayden Mullins's centre, and the former had another chance soon after that led to a worrying burst of goalmouth pinball.

Amid the gathering tension, Arteta's eventual introduction resulted in an audible cheer of relief from the home fans.

Hibbert, rather than Leon Osman or Kevin Kilbane, was the player to make way, suggesting the right-back had picked up some kind of knock.

Phil Neville duly slotted into Hibbert's position and Arteta took the former Manchester United player's place in central midfield.

Any hopes Arteta would arrest the slide were short-lived, however, and with 23 minutes remaining West Ham took the lead they would not lose. Benayoun skipped away from Neville on the left flank and then turned inside Arteta before curling a wellplaced shot that seemed destined for the far corner. Wright reacted superbly and palmed the ball aside, only for the encroaching Zamora to gobble up the loose ball.

After that, Everton threatened only in fits and starts, with Beattie centring for substitute Duncan Ferguson to head goalwards before Neville's pull-back set up an Arteta effort that was deflected wideimon Davies had Everton's best chance to restore parity, but the Welsh midfielder hopelessly misjudged Osman's centre and headed the ball well wide.

In truth, though, West Ham probably deserved the points.

All Everton must hope now is that this latest blip triggers a similar reaction to the last one

MATCH FACTS

Beattie 9

EVERTON: Wright, Hibbert (Arteta 61), Yobo, Weir, Nuno Valente, Osman, Neville, Davies, Kilbane (Ferguson 68), Beattie, McFadden (Bent 20). Subs: Turner, Kroldrup.

BOOKINGS: Hibbert, Osman

REFEREE: P Walton (Northamptonshire

ATT: 35,704

Weir 19og, Zamora 67

WEST HAM: Carroll, Repka, Ferdinand, Collins, Konchesky, Benayoun, Fletcher, Mullins, Etherington (Dailly 86), Harewood, Zamora (Newton 86). Subs: Hislop, Bellion, Aliadiere. BOOKING: Fletcher

NEXT GAME: Everton v Bolton Wanderers, Premiership, Saturday 3pm

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Visit the messageboards at www.icliverpool.co.uk to give your verdict

CAPTION(S):

James Beattie opens the scoring for Everton last night Pictures: COLIN LANE; David Weir (right) looks on in despair as he puts through his own goal to give West Ham the equaliser; James McFadden gets treatment before going off injured; Simon Davies heads for goal
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 15, 2005
Words:1162
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