Premier League: Everton 1 Stoke 0
Everton kept their chase for a top-four finish in the Premier League on track with a 1-0 victory over Stoke at Goodison Park on Saturday.
In a game short of genuine quality, Kevin Mirallas' brilliant solo effort in the first half proved the sole highlight and helped the hosts move within four points of fourth-placed Chelsea.
The Blues made three changes for the clash, with suspended duo Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar making way for Phil Jagielka and Nikica Jelavic, while the fit-again Tim Howard replaced Jan Mucha in goal.
Tony Pulis, meanwhile, was forced into omitting the injured Matt Etherington, with centre-back Robert Huth taking his place in the starting XI.
David Moyes had taken the unusual step of lining up with three central defenders, and the hosts' lack of familiarity with the formation almost cost them in the opening moments. Howard did well to parry away Huth's header but received a huge slice of luck as Jon Walters' follow-up bounced back off the bar.
In spite of that early moment of interest, the Goodison Park crowd were subsequently treated to a dire opening 20 minutes, with both sides struggling to get going. Jelavic's header straight into the hands of Asmir Begovic was the only chance of note as the hosts toiled despite controlling possession.
Both sides had real difficulty in stringing passes together throughout the opening half-hour on Merseyside and so it was perhaps unsurprising that the first goal came through a moment of individual inspiration.
Everton had been defending a corner in their own box before Howard's punch away reached Mirallas in the centre circle and, though the Belgian had a slice of luck in evading Steven N'Zonzi, he evidenced every ounce of his quality in gliding past Geoff Cameron before finishing his great work off with a cool finish despite Begovic's best efforts.
Unfortunately for the Toffees, the goal did not facilitate a flurry of further chances, as fans were treated to yet more turgid fare prior to the break.
Rather unsurprisingly, the second half started in similar fashion, before the cloud of mediocrity was lifted with 20 minutes gone as Huth and Jelavic both went close with headed efforts at either end.
The hosts vastly improved from that point on, with two successive threatening runs brought to an end by cynical Stoke fouls on the edge of the box and Jelavic going close with a free-kick at the second attempt.
The match largely petered out from that point on, with young substitute Ross Barkley's yellow card for an enthusiastic tackle on Whelan a rare moment of interest.
Everton would have cared little, however, as they grabbed three points which keep their Champions League hopes alive.