BOLTON // For much of this season, the consensus has been that Everton are in a false position. But as it progresses, a more damaging conclusion can be drawn: they are not.
With two-thirds of the campaign gone, they are marooned in 13th place. The chances of a fifth successive top-eight finish are receding, the reality of a struggle for survival occupying the manager's mind.
"I have thought [we were in a relegation battle] since the third week of the season," David Moyes said.
The anticipated challenge for a European place has come from Bolton Wanderers instead of Everton and defeat at the Reebok Stadium represented the underwhelming antidote to last week's exhilarating 5-3 win over Blackpool. For Moyes, it was a new nadir.
"Today's performance was as bad as I can remember since I've been in charge," said a manager approaching the eighth anniversary of his appointment.
Sitting stony-faced in the dugout, he was a picture of discontent.
"I was fed up watching the way they played," he added. "I picked the team and the tactics and they didn't work. They [the players] know themselves that was way below the levels they have set over the years.
"We've been built on a certain toughness and I didn't think it was on show today. We didn't compete hard enough."
It was a brutally honest admission. A side that contains quality displayed little.
While Everton retain a capacity to raise their game in higher-profile fixtures, more mundane matches have brought mediocre results. This was especially miserable, a performance that, like too many, lacked an end product.
It illustrated Everton's greatest failings, in attack and in the transfer market. Louis Saha's run of eight goals in six games is the sole sustained spell of scoring by a striker, but his absence with a hamstring injury was both predictable and telling.
Bolton possessed the added potency and, while Moyes was unable to recruit a forward in January, Owen Coyle could. Daniel Sturridge's loan spell from Chelsea is already proving productive. He added to Gary Cahill's early goal to secure just Wanderers' second league win of 2011.
The defender met Stuart Holden's free kick - Moyes branded the award of it "scandalous" - with a glancing header that had Tim Howard heading for his far post when it took a telling deflection off Johnny Heitinga, to wrong-foot the goalkeeper.
While one Cahill scored, another missed.
Usually the more prolific player with that surname, a stretching Tim Cahill volleyed a delicious cross from Leighton Baines past the post. As well as an immediate chance to equalise, it proved Everton's best opportunity.
Bolton were more creative. Sturridge's third goal in as many games was hooked in adeptly with the outside of his left foot after Chung-Yong Lee headed the ball into his path. It capped what Coyle called "a terrific performance," though Holden later had a goal disallowed.
While the Bolton manager beamed, his Everton counterpart glared. "Maybe I have gone a bit soft on the players," he added. It was part analysis, part apology, part threat.