Ayegbeni Yakubu was the hero as his double-salvo ensured Everton booked a return to European competition with a 3-1 win over visitors Newcastle United at Goodison Park on Sunday.
Eyebrows were raised in August when he became Everton’s record signing but the Nigeria striker repaid a large chunk of the 11.25 million pounds (21.9 million dollars, 14.2 million euros) the Toffees paid Middlesbrough with goals either side of half-time.
England forward Michael Owen had equalised for Newcastle from the penalty spot but defender Joleon Lescott’s 10th goal of the season gave Everton a lead they never looked like relinquishing and ensured they finished fifth in the English Premier League.
Given they had kept pace with city rivals Liverpool in the battle for the fourth Champions League spot, a place in the UEFA Cup was the least Everton deserved for their efforts but it seemed at one point they would blow it.
The breakthrough came in the 28th minute and it was little more than Everton deserved.
Damien Duff needlessly gave away a free-kick when he stupidly pulled back Steven Pienaar, a misdemeanour for which he was booked.
His error was exacerbated moments later when Manuel Fernandes floated a spendid cross towards Yakubu, whose header crashed past the helpless Magpies goalkeeper Stephen Harper.
In ending a six-game barren run, Yakubu became the first Everton player since Peter Beardsley in 1992 to score 20 goals in a season. He thought he had taken that total to 21 after 34 minutes but a linesman’s flag ruled out another header.
Despite having plenty of possession, Everton had looked a little tense but Yakubu’s opportunism provided a huge injection of confidence and soon it became a matter of when, not if, they would extend their lead.
Leon Osman went close with a bending left-foot shot, Fernandes tested the increasingly overworked Harper and Joseph Yobo should have done better after captain Phil Neville fizzed a cross in from the right.
Fortunately for Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, referee Phil Walton’s whistle provided a temporary respite and he could not have wished for his side to make a better start to proceedings in the second period, as they were gifted an equaliser.
There seemed little danger when Charles N’Zogbia got the ball on the half-way line but he slalomed unopposed towards Everton’s penalty area before his run was crudely stopped by Yobo.
Walton had little hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot and Owen kept his cool to rifle past Tim Howard. The former Real Madrid striker, who has now scored on his last four visits to Goodison, deprived Everton’s goalkeeper of his own little piece of history.
Had the United States international kept a clean sheet – and he did come desperately close to thwarting Owen – he would have equalled Neville Southall’s best in 1995/96 of 15 Premier League shut-outs and his frustration at being beaten was quite clear.
But having restored parity, Newcastle soon found themselves on the back foot again as first Fernandes went close with a dipping free-kick then Yakubu failed to get on the end of an enticing Victor Anichebe cross.
It mattered not. On 70 minutes, the home side’s pressure paid off as another cross from Fernandes caused havoc in the Newcastle area and Steven Taylor could only divert the ball to Lescott, who drilled in at the far post.
That effectively ended the contest but Yakubu put the gloss on victory when he converted Everton’s first Premier League spot-kick of the season after Osman had been bundled over by Taylor, starting the party at Goodison.
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