It is the most familiar fixture in English top-flight football and it brought the most familiar result in English top-flight football.
Or at least that’s how it seems at the moment when Aston Villa are beaten at Villa Park.
This is still a Villa team that most will back to survive another Premier League campaign. In fact, it’s a Villa team which will surprise no-one if it goes down to West Ham this weekend and wins.
But it is getting mighty hard for the Villa public to throw their enthusiasm behind Paul Lambert’s plans when it fails so frequently to send them home happy.
The Villa manager continues spinning silk from the sow’s ear of his home results with the ‘what could-have-beens’ or even ‘should-have-beens’ – and against Everton there was some merit to his excuses.
But there are more and more voices coming round to the view that Villa have become such a pale imitation of what went before, not in spite of his best efforts but because of them. His stubborn refusal to add depth, power and a little experience to a team still wearing its Premier League ‘L’ plates continues to baffle.
In his defence, Villa’s opening fixtures have set them a series of tough assignments from the leading teams in the country – a category to which the claret and blue can, sadly, no longer claim membership. Up ahead comes the counter-balance and a chance to apply some ballast to a new campaign which is beginning to look as familiar as the old campaign.
Home games against Cardiff and current crisis-club Sunderland are next up and – well, it’s a sentence which requires no completion. Everyone at Villa Park is already thinking that these are fixtures which will surely bring some respite from the results which undermine everything Lambert is trying to build at Villa.
Another mid-table dawdler, Manchester United, is the third in the sequence before the Christmas season gets into gear.
With the Hawthorns derby adding its own particular dynamic to the forthcoming schedule, along with away games of contrasting difficulty against Southampton and Fulham, the sense that Villa have fought their way to a Premier League clearing is tangible – but they are far from out of the woods.
The presence of both Gareth Barry and Roberto Martinez in the Everton triumph offered potent reminders of an alternative Villa narrative. Barry’s departure to Manchester City all those years ago was perhaps inevitable but his mooted return this summer was rejected out of hand by Lambert, the 32-year-old former Villa skipper failing to fit the manager’s player profile which is beginning to look rigid to the point of counter-productive.
And it’s impossible not to look at Martinez and wonder whether Villa’s story would have been dramatically different had he not opted to stay at Wigan following the easing out of Gerard Houllier.
So much water under the bridge now but the ripples will continue while Lambert’s dogmatic approach to team development – thrusting so much onus on young players of mixed pedigree – remains.
Yet again, Villa are pinning much on a big season from Christian Benteke but what happens when it does not quite work out for the prize pick of Lambert’s many signings? We discovered that on Saturday when Benteke found in Tim Howard an adversary he could not beat.
Having forced an early penalty from Seamus Coleman’s challenge, Benteke slammed the spot-kick goalwards with familiar power but Howard was its equal, a trailing left-arm palming the ball skywards.
He defied Benteke again moments later by correctly guessing the striker’s finish in a one-on-one which sprang from a touched pass of rare quality from the as yet under-used Alexsandar Tonev. And when Andi Weimann got his feet tangled up to give Howard the chance to save Everton from a third moment of peril in what would be the home team’s best phase of the game, Villa were clearly tempting fate.
Especially as Brad Guzan finished the half having to prove that what the Belgians can boast with strikers, the Americans can match with goalkeepers.
A superb reflex save and then another with his feet twice defied Romelu Lukaku while the bar prevented Ross Barkley scoring – as much as Lambert pleaded a case for Villa wasting chances to go three ahead, by the same logic Everton could have struck just as many times.
Villa would eventually be undone by two goals of sublime craft and equally high-grade finishing from the visitors. The first on 68 minutes was unerringly slotted beyond Guzan’s reach by Lukaku after Leighton Baines and Leon Osman had sliced open the right flank of a defence undone again nine minutes from time by Barry’s run into space and precise pull-back for Osman.
In between, the excellent Fabian Delph teed-up Gabby Agbonlahor for the chance to equalise but his finish, like Villa I’m afraid, lacked certainty and conviction.