Depleted Everton fall to Benfica

LONDON: Before every home match here an eagle called Vitoria swoops down from the stands and settles on a podium on the pitch. Given the ragged, ravaged state of an Everton side missing a full team through injury, there might as well have been a vulture perched on David Moyes's dug-out. As the evening sun sank into the Tagus, Everton must have felt they were prey and by nightfall their bones had been picked clean.

The scale of the humiliation might have been even greater but for Angel Di María, Benfica's brilliant Argentinian playmaker who orchestrated the collapse, driving a shot against the crossbar and drawing a couple of exceptional saves from Tim Howard. As it was, Everton returned from Lisbon having suffered their heaviest defeat in European competition.

When Di María galloped forward and, seeing Howard trying to back-pedal frantically into position, squared for Javier Saviola to clip into an unguarded net seven minutes from time, it surpassed the 5 1 defeat at Dinamo Bucharest which eliminated Everton from the 2005 Uefa Cup.

This, however, may be just a blip in their progress to the knockout stages of the Europa League. After Borisov's 2 1 victory over AEK Athens, Everton are still a comfortable second in Group I. However, the after-effects may linger into Sunday's game at Bolton and Tuesday's Carling Cup tie at Tottenham. "I would like to play Benfica with my best team," Moyes remarked wistfully afterwards, although he is unlikely to get his wish, even when they come to Goodison on Bonfire night.

"I have only praise for the players who were out there beacuase they all did their best in difficult circumstances," continued Moyes. "It is important to remember those lads who came in gave their all.

"There was no lack of enthusiasm or drive but they were up against tone or two serious players. I don't see why it should have a detrimental effect on any of them because it will give them an idea of what is required to play at the top level."

Everton were already without 10 first-team members yesterday morning before Leighton Baines, who had been expected to captain the side, became the 11th. During the long, disastrous evening Diniyar Bilyaletdinov became No12.

In Baines's place Moyes brought in Seamus Coleman, a 21-year-old he had signed from Sligo Rovers, at left-back. The other side of defence was patrolled by the 19-year-old Dan Gosling while another teenager, Jack Rodwell, was stationed just in front of the back four. By the standards of what was available on the bench, Louis Saha apart, they were almost veterans.

It would be lovely to report that Coleman had a debut to rank with Colin Harvey's first game for Everton in 1963, when as an 18-year-old he defied Internazionale at San Siro, but sadly he was exposed for Benfica's first three goals and his one consolation was his manager's observation that Di María would have troubled any full-back in the world last night.

If Everton's defence was a thing of shreds and patches, they were pitted against an attack that had scored 36 times in their previous seven matches.

Everton had fought hard to keep the scoreline down to a single goal by the interval but, if Moyes entertained any hopes of using that as a platform, they were demolished in the space of half a dozen minutes.

Four of Benfica's five goals came from low crosses that found their targets in an ocean of space and they were all delivered by Di María. The first was taken on the half-volley by Saviola and the same combination provided the fifth.

Two more crosses in as many minutes found Oscar Cardozo, who plays alongside Roque Santa Cruz for Paraguay and would dream of facing this kind of defence in a World Cup. The fourth was a free-kick from Pablo Aimar that Luisão headed emphatically home.