RECAP: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
Tim Howard and the Toffees secured their place in the Europa League's round of 32 with a shut-out in Greece while Clint Dempsey saw the final 20 minutes of action in Fulham's victory over their Bulgarian guests.
AEK Athens 0 - 1 Everton
Tim Howard went the full 90 minutes in goal for Everton on Wednesday on the team's trip to Athens, as their first shut-out in over two months was enough to secure their place in the round of 32.
Mired in a slump which has dropped the Toffees to within three points of the drop zone in the league and still feeling the sting from a pair of brutal defeats against group leaders Benfica in their previous two Europa League outings, Howard and his teammates traveled to Greece knowing that a win would secure their passage to the final 32.
They didn't wait long to leave their mark on the game, jumping to a quick lead only six minutes after the opening whistle, when Russian midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov ran onto a through-ball from Jo and smacked his angled shot into the roof of Sebastian Saja's goal.
While maintaining their lead throughout, David Moyes's squad was treated to an unfortunately familiar sight, with Dan Gosling forced from the game five minutes later after an awkward fall, then Sylvain Distin the next to the injury table seven minutes later.
The heavy rain throughout the game prevented the hosts from mounting any significant attempts at recovery from the early goal, with a few scattered chances serving as the only minor threats to Howard.
Jo became the third Everton player to fall to injury, limping off with an apparent knee injury in the 73rd minute, further ensuring job security of the team's doctors.
Sensing their slim hopes for a spot in the knockout round slipping away, AEK pushed hard in the final 15 minutes to equalize, however the makeshift Toffees' defense held strong through the onslaught, securing the three points.
With second place and passage to the knockout round guaranteed by the win, the Toffees face their relatively meaningless final game in Group I on December 17 when BATE Borisov come to Goodison Park.
In the meantime, they will try to rescue their faltering Premier League campaign on Sunday when they host third-place Tottenham.
Fulham 1 - 0 CSKA Sofia
Clint Dempsey saw the final 20 minutes of action for the Cottagers as they hung on for a nervy 1-0 win over visiting CSKA Sofia on Thursday evening.
Fulham dominated from the opening whistle, immediately giving their Bulgarian visitors problems to contain their swift and fluid attacks. The Cottagers' aggressive strategy appeared to have paid dividends with nine minutes gone by when Sofia's Ivan Ivanov gifted them the golden opportunity to take the lead with his clumsy tackle of the charging Zoltan Gera in his team's penalty area.
The chance went to waste, however, with team captain Danny Murphy embarrassingly sending the resulting spot kick well over the crossbar to keep the Bulgarians in the game.
Murphy's gaffe was quickly forgotten, as Norwegian Bjorn Helge Riise fired in a cross from the right flank which Gera headed in for the 14th minute lead.
Fulham continued to dominate the half both in possession and flow, but were unable to convert their advantage into further goals, keeping the game a tight affair on the scoreboard for the remainder.
Perhaps thinking ahead to Sunday's league showdown with Sunderland, Fulham skipper Roy Hodgson pulled star central defender Brede Hangelund at halftime, with the visitors seizing the chance to work the game to their advantage.
Sofia slowly gained more control of matters towards the final stages, and were inches away from the tying goal with nine minutes left. Kosta Yanev smacked a 25-yard shot that was headed straight for goal through a crowd of defenders, but the evening was saved thanks to an adept goal-line clearance by Damien Duff, allowing Fulham to hang on for the win.
The three points keep the Cottagers within grasp of second place and passage to the round of 32 as they are only one point behind second-place Basel with one Group E game remaining.
They face the Swiss team in an all-or-nothing battle in Basel on December 16, but will first look to improve their tenth-place standing in the Premier League when they host Sunderland on Sunday.
Jared Jeffrey was not part of the Club Brugge squad which battled to a scoreless draw on the road against reigning UEFA Cup champions Shakhtar Donetsk on Thursday. The point leaves Brugge with a one-point edge for advancement from Group J to the knockout round, which they can secure with a home victory over third-place Tolouse on December 16.
Dominic Cervi did not make the bench for Celtic's 2-0 home win over Hapoel Tel-Aviv on Wednesday night. Despite the win, Celtic are eliminated from contention for advancement to the round of 32 with a meaningless trip to Austria to play Group G last-place team Rapid Vienna on December 17.
Bryan Arguez did not suit up for Hertha on Thursday in their 1-0 win in Latvia over FK Ventspils. The result gives them a two-point cushion in second place in group D, and can guarantee passage to the knockout round with a win at home against group leaders Sporting on December 16.