There are certain moments in life so perfect, so euphoric, so crystalline, that you can live in but never relive. You can record them but you can’t capture them. You can create them but you can’t replicate them.
Case in point: the 66th minute of Everton v Fiorentina in the UEFA Cup last 16 on March 12, 2008. Mikel Arteta received the ball from just inside the opposition half as the demolition job on La Viola continued. A 2-0 first-leg defeat in Florence a week earlier looked insurmountable then, but now, without the deficit halved thanks to Andrew Johnson’s chin, and Everton pummelling their opponents into submission with wave after wave of attack, it looked only a matter of time before the knockout blow was landed.
Simultaneously, nine-year-old me furtively tiptoed his way downstairs to check the score of the game keeping me wide awake. I needn’t have bothered to be so discrete, though; only seconds later, I was unashamedly screeching with joy.
Arteta, benched along with Johnson for that shoddy first leg, had plenty of options, yet proceeded to surge forward unchallenged. Fiorentina retreated in unison, further and further back, almost daring the Spaniard to try his luck. Then, from about 25 yards, in front of a feral, skittish Gwladys Street end, he fired. Not even goalkeeper Sebastien Frey, typically enjoying the game of his life against David Moyes’ men, could prevent this bullet from arrowing into the corner of the net.
Suddenly, now at 2-0 on the night and 2-2 on aggregate, something began to happen. The frenzied wall of sound baying for Italian blood all evening swelled to an ear-splitting crescendo. Limbs flailed. Gantries shuddered. Time momentarily froze. Everton were closing in here, and there was no way I was missing a second of it from here on out, either.
Yet as ever with Everton, so often the bridesmaids in recent football history, it was not to be. Gallingly. Perhaps it would have been if not for Frey, who took it upon himself for much of the 120 minutes at Goodison Park that night to save Fiorentina’s skins. First from a sumptuous Arteta free-kick early on, then from Yakubu, then Johnson, then a miraculous stop with his legs to deny Joleon Lescott from point-blank range. A goal-line clearance from Phil Jagielka’s header from one of his team-mates was thrown in for good measure, too.
Indeed, stumped by the absence of injured Adrian Mutu, who would manage 24 goals that season, Cesare Prandelli’s side offered only one notable riposte; a late Giampaolo Pazzini header tipped over by Tim Howard. This, from a side that would finish fourth in Serie A, qualify for the Champions League and have their boss named Coach of the Year. And yet here, they looked terribly ordinary. Because Everton made them look terribly ordinary.
With no regard shown for the ramifications of a fateful away goal, the onslaught persisted, attacking truly becoming Everton’s best form of defence. Yet due largely to Frey’s heroics, that decisive third goal never arrived. And so, to penalties.
Even before the spot-kicks got underway, the pandemonium that had enveloped Goodison had begun to dissipate. In its place, a tension began to creep in. And well it might - the last decade alone had seen the Blues fail from 12 yards against Charlton, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Bristol Rovers. Even in ‘normal time’, Everton had missed three out of four penalties so far that season. If fingernails were certainly in short supply by then, so too, perhaps, was confidence.
Thomas Gravesen may relieved some of that pressure by emphatically hammering Everton ahead, but any momentum generated from that early lead soon evaporated. Fiorentina were faultless, imperious, professional - traits again unmatched in Moyes’ players from the spot. Yakubu could only watch his penalty hit the inside of the post and bounce out. Another superb stop from Frey denied Jagielka.
From the unbridled ecstasy that surrounded Arteta’s lightning bolt to the sheer desolation, the hollow silence that greeted Mario Alberto Santana’s match-winning penalty, rarely has a game’s electricity been butchered so devastatingly swiftly. ‘Grand Old Team’ then tinnily rang out as choruses of ‘Everton’ were repeatedly chanted and the losers departed the pitch to a standing ovation. A defiance in the face of the cruellest defeat, yet another cruel defeat, nonetheless.
That Everton were, for once (at least in my lifetime), a genuinely good side only made this cruel twist of fate even more gruelling. Howard was making a case for finally filling the Nigel Martyn-shaped void in goal. Lescott, who netted double figures that year, formed the base of a miserly defence alongside fellow stalwarts Jagielka and Joseph Yobo. Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar dovetailed seamlessly down the left flank in their first campaigns at Goodison. The midfield brains of Arteta and Tim Cahill complemented the brawn of Lee Carsley, Phil Neville and Leon Osman wonderfully. And in Yakubu, Moyes finally possessed the clinical, prolific striker he had long stressed his Everton sides had lacked. The longer that time passes, the more this side genuinely feels like the apogee of Moyes’ 11-year tenure.
What’s more, despite Moyes labelling Fiorentina Everton’s toughest European test so far (probably correctly, in truth), it transpired that his side had already beaten that year’s UEFA Cup winners - Zenit St. Petersburg - in the group stages. On a night when they also missed a penalty, no less. Beaten finalists Rangers would knock out Prandelli’s side in the semis on spot-kicks, too, after two drab goalless draws with the Italians. Perhaps it’s easier to say this through royal blue-tinted spectacles, but it does feel this was a major opportunity for silverware narrowly missed - again - by Moyes’ side.
All of this, coupled with the brutal fashion of the loss makes Fiorentina much harder to stomach for me than, say, defeats to Villarreal, or Oldham, or Millwall, or the 2009 FA Cup final. Even Prandelli, gracious in the emptiest of victories, found himself concurring with Moyes’ chillingly blunt post-mortem: “We battered them.”
For after the tightrope walk in Kharkiv, the full house over Larissa, Nürnberg, Zenit and AZ Alkmaar and the evisceration of SK Brann, the rug was pulled out from Everton’s feet on a night they could have scarcely deserved it less. Once more, their reward for gallantly giving everything was nothing.