ONCE again the margin of defeat was a single goal and, once again, its impact was particularly sobering.
Scorelines may suggest that Everton have pushed Chelsea and Liverpool close in recent weeks but only the most blinkered Blue would attempt to argue that their side has been hard done by in either game.
As has been the case on all bar two occasions this season, Everton lost another contest against one of the four sides currently above them because of a deficiency in quality.
Given the amount of injuries with which they currently have to contend, there was certainly no disgrace for a patched up side to lose 1-0 against Chelsea, but it still doesn’t make things any easier to stomach. Far from it.
Having pushed themselves to the absolute limit all season, fears are mounting in certain quarters that the wobble Everton are currently experiencing might be so severe it may be enough to see their efforts unravel completely.
Using last night as evidence, it is easy to see why. While there was nothing wrong with their effort, the ability to bustle Chelsea up was missing due to a lack of energy – the fizz that was so evident in their play before Fiorentina arrived in these parts has now gone flat.
It is almost as if that cruel defeat on penalties has sucked the life and enthusiasm out of this campaign and the hearts that were broken four weeks ago have yet to mend; no amount of rallying or cajoling helps.
Having been vying for a Champions League place and entertained real ambitions of lifting a piece of silverware, suddenly the fifth place for which Everton are now aiming to secure is scant consolation.
Bullseye comes to mind: ‘Have a look at what you could have won.’ From contemplating the star prize, now all they are left with is the thought of what might have been had their luck been different. Heaven forbid they end up with just their bus fare home.
Perhaps, then, the period before returning to action against Aston Villa will do everyone the world of good – a chance to get away from things before coming back refreshed and raring to go again.
That might just allow Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman to recover from injury and give David Moyes something different to play with as, no matter how he has shuffled his pack recently, the manager has had little option but to deal the same hand.
Moyes made just the one change to the side that had drawn 1-1 with Birmingham City but it was significant, the manager replacing Joseph Yobo for Leighton Baines and shuffling Joleon Lescott across to left-back.
There is no disputing that Moyes is blessed with defensive options and he certainly didn’t dilute the quality of his rearguard by making that switch. But one wonders what Baines needs to do to start a high profile game.
When the chips have been down, Moyes has preferred to go for the option where he has height at the back. Yet one struggles to recall an occasion when Baines has played that he has been caught out at the back post.
True, injuries have compromised his chances since he has been at Goodison Park and maybe next season will be the time he really blossoms but, given the quality he provides down the left flank, it seems a shame to see Baines sitting in the stands so often.
The men who did start soon found it tough going.
Love them or loathe them, Chelsea have some outstanding players and always looked to be holding Everton at arms length through the first period. Danger beckoned every time they went forward.
Passing the ball at a pace with which the Blues struggled to live, the hope was that referee Martin Atkinson would blow his whistle to provide temporary respite but, unfortunately, the goal they threatened to muster arrived just before the break.
Michael Essien bulldozed his way past some flimsy challenges and, after earning himself a lucky break when the ball ricocheted into his path off Phil Jagielka, poked a shot past the helpless Tim Howard.
Hard as it is to admit, it was no more than they deserved.
Judging by the groans which accompanied the goal, many felt that moment signalled ‘game over’ and there was little indication after the re-start that Everton could turn things around.
Chelsea simply had too much savvy and were able to play within themselves.
Everton’s best (only?) hope of clawing something back was from a set piece and so it proved when Manuel Fernandes saw a wonderful free-kick skim a post after John Terry had flattened Yakubu. That was as good as it got.
Apart from that moment, Fernandes was once again a bitter disappointment, threatening to take the game by the scruff of the neck but, more often than not, ended up getting caught in possession or giving the ball away in dangerous areas, much to Moyes’ exasperation.
His status as a crowd favourite, however, means that he tends to escape criticism from the terraces, unlike skipper Phil Neville, whose name is enough to trigger howls of derision in certain quarters.
He might not be the best footballer in the world, nor does he have an array of defence-splitting passes in his armoury, but one thing you can guarantee is his resolve to succeed for Everton. Some of his team-mates would do well to copy that attitude.
Neville never missed a tackle when he was in the centre of midfield last night, used possession sensibly, yet he ended up getting the loudest heckle of all when a cross deep in added time ballooned out of play.
So, then, a miserable end to a rotten evening when it was difficult to find positives. But the feelings of despondency cannot persist. Everton, after all, have got to ensure they finish best of the rest.
EVERTON (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Yobo, Lescott; Pienaar (Anichebe 62), Neville, Carsley, Fernandes; Yakubu, Johnson (Gravesen 62)
CHELSEA (4-4-2): Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Carvalho, A Cole; Wright-Phillips (Makelele 81), Essien, Mikel Obi, J Cole (Malouda 77); Kalou, Anelka.
Goals - Essien (41)
Bookings - Carvalho (23 foul), Ferreira (58, foul)
Attendance - 37,112
Referee - Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire)