The present may be unpleasant but the promise of a brighter future cheers Paul Lambert. Encouraged by a second display of devastating, high-speed counterattacking on Merseyside this season, he voiced his belief that next year we will see the real Aston Villa. "If we can get through this period, we will kick right on," their manager said.
Lambert sees light at the end of the tunnel but he was speaking in the wrong city: Liverpudlians' experience is that tunnels go to Birkenhead and if Villa visit Merseyside next season, their destination could be Tranmere Rovers' Prenton Park rather than Anfield or Goodison Park.
The fact is that Villa were last relegated under another former Celtic captain, Billy McNeill, in 1987. Then, like now, they sat second from bottom after 25 games with the division's most porous, and perhaps poorest, defence. The difference is that McNeill's side had three more points at this stage of the season. Lambert's focus on the future may involve suffering pain now to gain later but it is a risky formula.
There is a defiance to the Glaswegian, who defends his players rather better than they protect their goal. "They are fighting like hell to get out of it," Lambert said. "If they keep playing like that, they will win more games than not." Yet Villa showcased their ability and their fragility in the space of 90 eventful minutes, extending their wait for a win to eight games that have yielded only three points. Everton emulated Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion by scoring a late equaliser to deprive them of victory.
The question of how to hold on to a lead is perplexing Lambert. "If I knew that I would be in the bookies, wouldn't I?" he said. The conclusion was cruel but the performance heartening. "Coming here nobody gave us an earthly chance," he said. Lambert has brought a mentality of being eternal underdogs from Norwich to Villa. Whereas former European Cup winners may belong among the game's aristocracy, it ties in with his year zero approach.
It is a source of his pride that his most potent weapon was an unknown months ago. Now Christian Benteke's size and menace make him instantly recognisable but Lambert said: "For somebody nobody ever heard of to play the way he is and [get] the goals he has scored has been absolutely terrific. He is a really humble guy which will stand him in good stead. He has been top class and he has just turned 22." Benteke's best is yet to come but, should Villa go down, Lambert's discovery will surely be plucked from him by a Premier League club.
Defenders must hope not. Besides striking twice, Benteke made a World Cup finalist, Johnny Heitinga, resemble a bleary-eyed pub-team player, struggling with the after-effects of the night before. "This is someone with 50 or 60 [actually 85] Dutch caps," David Moyes said. "A really experienced defender. He knows what he needs to do." Knowledge proved no answer to Benteke's pace and power, however.
"Villa's forward players are their threat," Moyes said, highlighting Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and the rejuvenated Charles N'Zogbia. "Paul could not have gone more attacking. They might suffer a bit the other way." They did at Goodison Park. Victor Anichebe became the latest muscular striker to unsettle Villa, Marouane Fellaini the newest addition to a lengthy list of players who have profited at set pieces against them.
Villa's captain, Ron Vlaar, lost the Belgian for his injury-time equaliser, much to Lambert's frustration. "It is man for man," he said. "It is simple." He is looking for individuals to take responsibility in a collective effort. "It is never a blame culture," he said. "Everyone knows what happened."
But it happens with regularity, like Everton comebacks. "At 3-1 down you take the point," Moyes said, his side condemned to chase the game by their rather more uncharacteristic defensive failings. "We're in February and we've only lost three games all season. That has to be put in perspective."
Context suggests that, while they have dropped points against each of the bottom eight teams, Everton's improvement, like Villa's troubles, began almost a year ago. Moyes' team have lost only three times in 34 league matches. Villa have only four wins in 35. "You never stop learning in football, certainly if you're losing," Lambert said. This season, therefore, has doubled up as a course at an Ivy League university for the collection of callow sixth formers he has assembled. Come May, they either graduate with honours or their expensive education will cost them their Premier League place.
Man of the match Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)