Much has changed at Everton in the two years since Landon Donovan last journeyed over from LA Galaxy, and little for the better, but his ability to inspire David Moyes' team is undiminished. The USA captain produced the finest performance of his second spell on loan as Fulham meekly exited the FA Cup.
There had been only glimpses of Donovan's previous form prior to the fourth- round meeting with Martin Jol's team, although that failing stems from the weaknesses around him in the Everton team and not a fault of the 29-year-old. With despondency settling on Goodison as Everton struggle to sign the reinforcements they desperately need and Moyes' team slipping towards trouble in the Premier League, an awkward evening lay in store when Danny Murphy put Fulham ahead from the penalty spot.
Everton, and particularly Donovan, produced a response that has been often lacking this season. Headers from Denis Stracqualursi, his first for the club, and Marouane Fellaini capped a strong home display from Everton with both goalscorers having the American to thank for inch-perfect centres.
"He's a diamond of a guy," said Steve Round, the Everton assistant manager. "The lads all love him and he's a very intelligent player who also brings speed to the team and allows us to get from back to front very quickly. He has brought a lot to the club. He is a top player. Of course we'd like to have him for longer but we know what the deal is." And how Everton needed Donovan's intelligent distribution.
Their night began badly when John Heitinga discovered another reason to avoid Howard Webb. Everton had dominated possession in the early stages without showing the incisiveness from which Fulham profited in their first attack. The fact two former Liverpool players combined to prise apart their defence only intensified the frustration. Murphy sprayed a perfect crossfield pass into space vacated by Phil Neville at right-back, where John Arne Riise collected, drew Tim Howard out of position and cut the ball back for Damien Duff. Duff's shot was goalbound until Heitinga dived into block but did so with a raised arm. Referee Webb, who dismissed Heitinga in the World Cup final and has booked the Dutchman on four of the eight occasions they have met, pointed to the spot and Murphy coolly wrong-footed Howard.
Everton should have equalised minutes later when the young central defender Shane Duffy headed a Magaye Gueye corner wide from four yards out. But despite that setback, the home side responded impressively. Three corners in two minutes produced chances for Gueye, Tim Cahill and a second for Duffy but Fulham held firm, Stephen Kelly producing a superb headed clearance.
The pressure told as Moyes' side levelled through their on-loan centre-forward Stracqualursi. The lumbering Argentinian is more graft than craft, a lot more in all honesty, and has not looked close to scoring since arriving from Tigre on the August transfer deadline day, yet he remedied that in convincing style when Donovan checked inside and delivered an inviting left-foot cross from the right wing. Stracqualursi converted a towering header into the bottom corner and was in tears as he celebrated his first goal in English football.
Another perfect cross from Donovan, reacting quickly to a free-kick he had won, created the winner for Fellaini as his header looped over David Stockdale and into the corner. Fulham, for all their ability and pace up front, offered precious little and could have no complaints. "We knew it would be difficult here but with our quality up front we should have done better," Jol said.