Naismith fires Everton towards top four
Steven Naismith came off the bench to inspire Everton to a 3-1 success at Fulham on Sunday that further enhanced their chances of qualifying for next season's Champions League.
After weathering sustained first-half pressure, Everton took a 50th-minute lead at Craven Cottage when Naismith's deflected volley ricocheted off Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale and into the net for an own goal.
Fulham substitute Ashkan Dejagah equalised with a blistering strike 21 minutes later, only for another substitute, Kevin Mirallas, to restore Everton's lead with 11 minutes remaining.
Naismith applied the coup de grace in the 87th minute to complete a win that took Roberto Martinez's side to within four points of fourth-place Arsenal, who visit Goodison Park next weekend.
Everton also have a game in hand, but while their fans begin to dream of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it is Bournemouth and Blackpool who beckon for Fulham after a defeat that left them five points adrift of safety at the foot of the Premier League table.
Everton were unchanged from their mid-week 3-0 win at Newcastle United, while Fulham manager Felix Magath made three changes, surprisingly handing a first start to 17-year-old French striker Moussa Dembele.
Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Manchester City on Saturday had opened the door for Everton, but it was Fulham who took the initiative in the first half on a warm spring day in west London.
After Lewis Holtby had sliced an early warning shot off target, a right-wing corner was flicked on by Brede Hangeland to Pajtim Kasami, who could only head wide at the back post.
Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard was then obliged to save with his feet from Kieran Richardson, who had been played in by Dembele, before Stockdale produced a similar save at the other end to thwart Gerard Deulofeu.
It was Fulham who were creating the better chances, though, and Howard was called upon to tip over a header from Holtby and gather a header from Dembele before the interval.
- Fortune deserts Stockdale -
Everton lost Ross Barkley to a calf injury at half-time, but Naismith's entrance in his place proved the catalyst for an immediate upturn in their fortunes.
The Scottish forward claimed the credit for Everton's opener, although the decisive touch came from the unfortunate Stockdale.
When a Leighton Baines corner was headed clear, Naismith volleyed the ball goalwards and it flicked off Fulham midfielder William Kvist before being inadvertently kicked into the net by the backtracking Stockdale.
Naismith's incisive pass then freed Baines for a cross that narrowly eluded Romelu Lukaku, who called Stockdale into action again moments later with a snapshot that the Fulham goalkeeper blocked with his feet.
The momentum appeared to have shifted in Everton's favour, but another substitute was to tilt the balance of the game back towards Fulham.
Dejagah came on for Richardson in the 64th minute and took just seven minutes to equalise, cutting inside James McCarthy and lashing a vicious strike inside the left-hand post from the edge of the area.
Suddenly, Martinez's side were under pressure again, with Howard parrying a header from former Everton man Johnny Heitinga and then blocking an effort from Steve Sidwell.
The visitors survived, however, and they restored their lead in the 79th minute when another substitute, Aiden McGeady, released Mirallas to steer a left-foot shot into the bottom-left corner.
Naismith got on the score-sheet three minutes from time, stabbing home from Baines's trundling low cross, but the post denied him a second goal when he took aim from 25 yards in the dying stages.