Jack Grealish’s Aston Villa return excites Dean Smith despite Everton stalemate

A fit Jack Grealish was a sight for sore eyes for Aston Villa and England fans, even if the playmaker’s return after a three-month lay-off with shin trouble was not enough to raise this match above mediocrity. Grealish, introduced from the bench in the 72nd minute, looked understandably off the pace in this mostly tepid contest – one scorching burst excepted – but his return raises hopes that he could regain his best form in time for the European Championship.

“He certainly brought a spark on to the pitch straight away,” said the Aston Villa manager, Dean Smith. “He had one mesmerising run where he had five or six Everton players chasing him. It’s small steps at the moment but we’re happy to have him back. We need to go softly-softly with him. We’ve got three games now in the next 10 days and we’re hopeful Jack will play a part in all of those games.”

Villa can still finish in the top half while Everton edged closer to European qualification with this point. “Nothing changes our idea to fight until the end of the season,” said Carlo Ancelotti. “Maybe we need to have three more victories to be in Europe. We will try to do that.”

Ancelotti has got his tactics for away matches right much more often than not this season, with Everton gaining almost twice as many points on their travels than at Goodison Park. Here the Italian opted for a different formation to the one used in Sunday’s victory at West Ham, with Séamus Coleman starting in midfield and Mason Holgate filling the right-back berth in a flat back four. They remained defensively tight, with Ben Godfrey particularly impressive at centre-back as Everton recorded their sixth clean sheet from their last seven away matches.

That said, Villa were superior in the first half and might have taken the lead with sharper finishing. Everton were grateful for the suspension of Ollie Watkins, who had tormented them when Villa won 2-1 at Goodison Park a fortnight ago. Keinan Davis, entrusted with his first league start of the season, is a useful target man but not as dynamic as Watkins. It fell to Ross Barkley to do most of the harassing of Everton defenders when Villa did not have the ball: he did so diligently but, when he got possession, was wasteful too often. He was replaced after the hour by Jacob Ramsey.

Everton were ponderous in the first period, although a header by Dominic Calvert-Lewin drew a humdrum save from Emi Martínez after a cross by Coleman. Tyrone Mings could have at least tested Jordan Pickford at the other end in the 18th minute when Douglas Luiz chipped a cross into the near post, but the centre-back sent a diving header wide from six yards.

Anwar El Ghazi also failed to land his shot on target when presented with a chance to curl one into the top corner from the edge of the area two minutes later. Bertrand Traoré was Villa’s most inventive player in the first half, his sporadic trickery a highlight amid much drudgery. In the 23rd minute he ran at the Everton defence and slipped a pass through to Davis, who miscontrolled and then, in his eagerness to make amends, got in the way of Matty Cash’s shot from the corner of the box. Davis did better moments later when he bounded down the left and sent an inviting ball across the face of goal but no one was on hand to meet it. Villa’s attack was not quite clicking.

Everton perked up just before the break. They would have scored if Calvert-Lewin had been able to reach an excellent cross by Lucas Digne, but he could not get his toe to it. The visitors took that momentum into the second period and Martínez had to make a smart save to deny Godfrey in the 52nd minute.

Another 20 minutes fairly meandered by before Smith turned to Grealish for inspiration. But, inevitably due to his lack of fitness, he exerted little influence. Everton came close to snatching victory three minutes from time when Calvert-Lewin rose to meet another fine cross by Digne only for Martínez to make a splendid save to claim a 15th clean sheet of the season, equalling the Villa Premier League-era record set by Brad Friedel in 2009-10.