Ecstasy and agony make the strangest of bedfellows. They could not be more different, and yet there is such a fine line between them that to be acquainted with one is to have known the other. On some nights, the heights of ecstasy can sink into the nadir of agony in an instant. March 12 2008 was one such night. Fiorentina came to Goodison, saw, and were conquered, and yet conquered; Evertonians knew delirium before despondency. Somehow, the Uefa Cup defeat is still regarded one of the better recent Goodison nights. All it needed was the fairytale finish.
But this is Everton, and Everton don’t do fairytales.
David Moyes’ side had started the season with mixed fortunes. New signings Yakubu, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Borussia Dortmund loanee Steven Pienaar settled in well, while Thomas Gravesen also made a Goodison return on a temporary basis. The 7-1 thrashing of Sunderland was apparently DVD-worthy, but good form was tempered by agonising away defeats to Newcastle and Manchester United, as well as the infamous Clattenburg derby. The Toffees reached the League Cup semi-finals, falling to Chelsea, but were embarrassed at home in the FA Cup by Oldham. That said, a top four finish wasn’t out of the question going into March.
Neither was European glory. Everton had faltered in a 1-1 home draw against Metalist Kharkiv, leaving their chances of progression to the group phase on a knife edge. The Blues were 18 minutes from elimination at the imaginatively-named Metalist Stadium before timely intervention from James McFadden and Victor Anichebe. Everton made light work of the group, however. A 3-1 home win over Larissa featured one of the club’s finest European strikes from Leon Osman; A famous away night in Nuremberg was decided by Mikel Arteta and Anichebe goals in the last ten minutes; A late Tim Cahill winner was enough to defeat Zenit St. Petersburg; and a much-changed XI ended AZ Alkmaar’s 32-match unbeaten home European run, despite the goalscoring intervention of 22 year old Graziano Pelle. An 8-1 aggregate win over SK Brann Bergen in the round of 32, including a 6-1 Goodison romp, was nothing short of glorious. A first European final since 1985 was in sight.
In Everton’s way stood Fiorentina, who would eventually pip AC Milan to fourth in Serie A. Cesare Prandelli’s Viola had plenty of firepower, with free-scoring Adrian Mutu supported by Italy legend Christian Vieri and young forward Giampaolo Pazzini, who had the honour of scoring the first competitive goal at the new Wembley. The Italians finished second in their Uefa Cup group behind Villarreal before edging past Rosenberg in the first knockout round. In the first leg at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, they were hosting an Everton side who had won their last five games on the bounce.
And they thrashed them.
Everton managed just one shot to Fiorentina’s 16 on a night which could have gone even worse if not for Tim Howard’s heroics. Neither Mutu nor Pazzini featured, but Martin Jorgensen and Daniel Osvaldo ably took up the mantle, threatening throughout. Everton’s resistance would be broken by Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Riccardo Montolivo strikes in the second half, as the Viola took the tie by the scruff of the neck.
Some Goodison magic was needed if Everton were to turn the tie around, and all the signs were good as the Toffees sending the home crowd into raptures early on. Pienaar’s fast feet gave him the opportunity to whip in a cross from the left. Sebastien Frey, the Fiorentina goalkeeper, missed the ball entirely, leaving it to bounce of the chest of a surprised Andy Johnson and trundle unencumbered into the Park End net.
The early goal was exactly what the atmosphere needed. It was electric, every Everton pass, tackle and effort on goal met with the Goodison Roar of lore. Yet it seemed to inspire the best in Frey, who first sprung to his left to beat away Arteta’s curling free kick, and then stretching out a strong left foot to deny Yakubu in superb style.
The away side had no response to the Everton onslaught. Still the waves of blue came crashing down on the away side’s penalty area, Johnson the next to be denied by the excellent Frey. The half time break gave the visitors but a brief respite, and again Everton poured forward in the second period, a flicked Jagielka header blocked on the line.
Goodison believed a special moment was coming. And it was.
Receiving the ball some 40 yards from goal, Mikel Arteta still had plenty to do. Yet space opened up in front of him, a violet sea parted. The Spaniard strode forward, assessing his options. Right of goal, 25 yards out, Arteta picked his spot. His daisy-cutter fired through the mass of bodies with bloody-minded purpose, and not even an inspired Frey could deny it. Arteta’s drive nestled in the corner of the Gwladys Street goal.
Under the Goodison lights, the ground erupted.
By that point, a winner seemed a mere formality. Fiorentina were on the ropes, Everton circling like Ali in his prime. Yet Everton never make things easy. When a final blow was needed, the Blues floated like a butterfly, and stung like one too.
Yakubu would be denied by a Frey double-save before Pazzini almost stole the tie, Howard tipping a header over the bar. The Nigerian met Arteta’s free kick in injury time, but his headed effort went inches wide of the left hand post. Extra time was dominated by the hosts, just as normal time had been, but the Fiorentina defence – not including Everton flop Per Kroldrup, who remained benched – stood firm. Johnson broke free after an incisive Yakubu pass, but opted to attempt a return ball to his strike partner which was intercepted.
And so it came down to penalties. Everton’s dominance no longer mattered. Only the coolest heads and the steadiest nerves would prevail. Penalty expert Gravesen, a 119th minute substitute for Johnson, tucked his effort away. Yakubu sent Frey the wrong way, but found the post. Cue groans around Goodison. Arteta’s dinked effort floated in, but Jagielka lacked the composure he would show at Wembley 13 months later, and Frey beat the penalty away. Tim Howard, meanwhile, nearly got a hand to Pazzini’s penalty, but afterwards looked lost on his own goalmouth as Montolivo and Osvaldo converted. Mario Alberto Santana, faced with the task of sealing Everton’s fate, did so with consummate ease. And so, despite one of the best European displays ever put on by an Everton side, the night ended in dismay.
It was a case of what might have been for Everton. Fiorentina coated past PSV in the quarter finals, before a semi-final against Rangers that did not feature a single goal in 210 minutes of action. The Scots would prevail from the spot, only to lose in the final against Zenit, the side Everton had beaten (and comfortably outplayed) in the group stage. Everton won just two of their nine league games following the Uefa Cup exit, finishing 11 points off 4th-place Liverpool. Fifth place meant entry into the Uefa Cup once more, though that ended at the first hurdle thanks to Standard Liege.
It is strange to think Evertonians could have made themselves familiar with both ecstasy and agony in the space of mere minutes. Yet that famous-turned-infamous Fiorentina victory-turned-defeat achieved it. It was a reminder that, even when glory seems inevitable, Everton can always find a way.