Everton and Arsenal and That

dinosaur

When you are held rapt by the tactical analysis of the increasingly Mitt Romney-faced Jamie Carragher and duplicitous advisor at the Court of Louis XIV, Gary Neville, as they praise Everton’s ‘Bayern in Blue’ performance, well, it’s hard to really add much more than has been said elsewhere.

We had already billed this as the sort of potentially era-defining match that the Toffees usually choke on like a toddler with a bag of bon bons. So although we all went into the game excited and expectant, there also lurked the fear that we would once again wither in the glare of the spotlight.

Shows what we fucking know.

Everton were simply magnificent. From the moment that Leon Osman’s audacious dipping snapshot from long distance almost landed in the top corner of the Park End net, beyond the point when Seamus Coleman juggled the ball from the edge of his own area to almost over the halfway line, the Blues took Arsenal to school.

And robbed their dinner money and got them right in the eye with their ‘golly spoon’.

When this match and its significance began to crystallise, as the form of both sides wildly diverged, we commented on the fact that its outcome could have potentially far-reaching significance for both clubs. For Everton that still hinges on whether it has given them the impetus that will end in Champions League qualification. For Arsenal though, and specifically Arsene Wenger, the damage may already be done.

The chicken-skinned Frenchman can hide behind the spending of the opposition when his team are bummed by the other Champions League behemoths, but on Sunday he looked like a dinosaur – one of the shit ones that ate grass as well – whose world was transformed irreversibly by the shuddering impact of Roberto Martinez’s soccer comet.

Wenger can complain about the loan signings all he likes, but there was nothing stopping him from buying one of the Blues’ best performers and scorer of the first goal, Steven Naismith. Fair enough, he did knock in the rebound after one the players whose presence at Everton most irks Wenger, Romelu Lukaku, had been denied by Wojciech Szczesny, but you get the point. Lukaku being lent to Everton is somehow much fairer than, say, the Gunners paying £25 million for him next season or something.

And before some sweaty mouth-breather like Martin Samuel goes on about the players not being able to face the club that owns their contract, we fucking beat Chelsea at home, with a goal from Naismith by the way, and were desperately unlucky to lose at Stamford Bridge. Which is more than can be said for bought and paid for Arsenal.

Oh, and will the big quilt be campaigning for Gareth Barry to be eligible when we play Manchester City?

13 tog you, lad.

Of all the countless reasons to enjoy the game, one of the biggest was the performance of Ross Barkley, who came on as sub early on after Osman suffered a horrible Enzo Maccarenelli-style eye injury while rattling through the back of Bacary Sagna. It wasn’t the most spectacular Barkley display, but he showed a level of maturity that he needs to fulfil his potential. With the game not long at 1-0 he looked up and thought about a risky cross-field ball to Coleman. In an instant though he realised that a mistake left Everton’s whole right side open to a counter-attack and turned back and kept possession.

Sometimes football is as much about the passes that you don’t play as the ones you do.

Mmmmmm.

Nice.

One of the points that almost all the pie-faced pundits picked up on was that Lukaku started the game on the right of the front three. That was seen as a comment on the shitness of Nacho Monreal, but it was more to do with getting the big lump doing the things he is best at, and that is leaving the clever movement and hold up play to Naismith, running with the ball and then kicking the living piss out of it with his left foot. And that’s exactly what he did, on 34 minutes, gathering a pass from Kevin Mirallas and steaming down the right before appearing to lose the ball as he cut across the area. None of the red-shirted defenders fancied getting in his road though and the barnstorming Belgian smashed a low drive into the bottom corner.

There was no real response from Arsenal after the break, and on 61 minutes the final half hour of exhibition stuff was set up by the pace and persistence of Mirallas. The wide-man, who head on looks like someone messing around covering half their face with a mirror, had his best game for ages, and it was summed up by the way he muscled Sagna off the ball before driving at the visitors’ defence and releasing Naismith. Again the keeper could only parry the shot and, under pressure from Mirallas, returning shit-heel Mikel Arteta toe-ended the ball into his own net.

Cool.

There’s a long way to go and Arsenal do have the much easier run-in, so we all know that qualifying for the Gazprom Bacchanalian League is going to be really tough.

Fucking hell though, it’s going to be a wild ride while it lasts.

 

Fulham 1 Everton 3

George-Best

This encounter at Craven Cottage was literally a game of two halves. And that’s because FIFA and the FA insist on that format. It would be unfair otherwise if you were allowed to just play to whatever fraction you chose. Absolute chaos.

In the second of the allotted periods of 45 minutes plus stoppages Everton played a lot better than they did in the first, and that was primarily because of the introduction of Moomin-faced marauder Steven Naismith in place of midweek maze-meister Ross Barkley. On this showing it will be a travesty if the ex-Rangers man isn’t on the plane to Brazil. Alright, Scotland never qualified, but that’s hardly his fault. It’s just one more thing, apart from clever movement, an unerring eye for goal and a house on stilts that Naismith shares with George Best.

He might not have a house on stilts.

The team that looked so joyous in its Geordie japes were fucking last in the first half. Leon Osman wasn’t so much the fluid midfield pivot this time as a rusty hinge, constantly caught in possession as the whole side struggled to find any space or rhythm on that horrible, minty little pitch.

Gerard Deulofeu, another of the Tuesday night terrors, also looked less effective as he predictably went on the outside of the fullback whenever he got the ball and simply fought a running battle with the onrushing byeline. On the occasions he did manage to flash his customary low ball into the six-yard box his teammates somehow failed to anticipate and the home side’s goal remained unsullied at the break, to the immense satisfaction of tight-shiny-brown-trunks-wearing-stood-too-close-at-the-all-inclusive-salad-bar-in-Kos-looking Felix Magath.

The boss in the bad bins was less pleased after five minutes of the second half when, following a half-cleared Everton corner, Naismith miscued a volley that was heading wide of the goal. Unfortunately for goalkeeper David Stockdale though, trying to recover from the initial delivery and get back in the goal, well, all he managed to do was boot the ball into his own net. Like some sort of tit.

It wasn’t just Roberto Martinez’s substitutions that reaped dividends though. Magath, who piles his breakfast plate full of loads of ham and that weird dark bread, sent on a player who has inspired one of the most predictable terrace chants ever.

That’s right, don’t you just groan every time you hear, ‘Ashkan, you don’t have to put on the red light’?

Six minutes after entering the fray – fray, really? – Ashkan Dejagah cut in from the left, benefitted from James McCarthy’s slip and smashed a shot that beat Tim Howard at the near post. Normally keepers get criticised for when the ball passes them on the short side, but the sheer violence of this effort left him little chance of making the save.

Did anyone really expect Everton to come back from there, because little else in the match had hinted that they had it in them. However, two more substitutes, Aiden McGeady and Kevin Mirallas, combined to re-establish the lead on 79 minutes. The Irishman, whose ability to keep the ball and pass it intelligently has been more impressive than his famed dribbling skills, picked out the Belgian with a superb through-ball and old crazy eyes did the rest, holding off a defender and picking his spot.

Naismith sealed the result with a stabbed finish from close range on 87 minutes as Everton dominated the closing stages, and then hit the base of the post with a low drilled effort that illustrated his growing confidence.

Go ‘ead lad!

That’s five straight Premier League victories for the Toffees, setting up the blockbuster clash at Goodison on Sunday. You would have to say that Arsenal are still favourites for fourth because of the respective run-ins and Everton’s wafer thin margins for error, but simply being in contention at this point is almost an achievement in itself.

Almost.

Newcastle and Fulham and That

silvio

There’s that bit in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves’ character begins to realise his own power and potential, looks up at Laurence Fishburne, makes the Bruce Lee ‘come hither’ motion with his fingertips and says, ‘I know Kung Fu’.

Everton know Kung Fu.

Well, they looked like they did on Tuesday night at Saint James’ Park when Roberto Martinez’s ballsy – yes, ballsy – team selection resulted in Newcastle United perhaps not quite getting torn a new one, but at least poked vigorously in the old one.

Have that.

Martinez dropped Kevin Mirallas and Aiden McGeady after the strangely meandering team performance at the weekend and brought in Gerard Deulofeu. The result was arguably the best blend of talent available to the Blues’ boss, certainly in terms of setting up to counter-attack away from home. The ever-dependable Gareth Barry and James McCarthy shielded the pacey and promising central defensive partnership of John Stones and Sylvian Distin while up front the rampaging trifecta (tri-fuck-yeah?) of Deulofeu, Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley continually streaked straight towards Tim Krul’s goal like predators through the pampas.

And linking it all together – his appreciation of space a substitute for his absence of pace – was little Neon Leon.

McCarthy initially made a double block during a goalmouth scramble that was scruffier than Gideon Yobo’s bachelor pad, and Vurnon Anita was guilty of a horrific miss in the second half, but you only have to read the wistful North East match reports to know this night was all about Everton.

Barkley started it off with his wonder goal, initiated when Deulofeu showed some courage to chest down a clearance despite a defender’s lunging limb. The ball dropped to Barkley in the Everton half and he started running.

And running.

And running.

It’s not often that Lukaku reminds you of Alan Partridge, but his shouts of ‘Ross, Ross, Ross’ fell on deaf ears as the midfielder cut across the penalty area, dribbled around his Belgian teammate and lashed the ball into the roof of the net with his left foot.

‘Ross!’

‘No, he’s not heard me.’

‘ROSS!’

An incredible individual goal that overshadowed the quality of the rest somewhat, but they were all pearlers in their own way.

The second, not long after the break, started with Osman unmarked in the centre-circle, clipping the ball out into the path of Deulofeu. As soon as the Spaniard took the aggressive first touch that sent him straight down the wing, fullback Paul Dummett was reduced to the position of observer.

With Deulofeu in full flight and half a hectare of space, Lukaku’s run to the near post wasn’t so much a gamble as a bigger sure thing than your Mum. The confluence of striker and sphere, timed to perfection, meant only one thing.

Goal.

In the dying moments, following a clever touch in midfield from Steven Naismith, Deulofeu drew two weary defenders before finding Lukaku who in turn teed up Osman. His swerving drive into the roof of the net was thoroughly deserved.

At the same time as all this was going on, Arsenal’s stirring fightback at the Emirates was undone by Matthieu Flamini’s own goal. And the Premier League landscape shifted ever-so-slightly.

After playing Manchester City this weekend the Gunners travel to Goodison Park, and that Flamini goal means that encounter has the potential to be an era-defining game for both clubs. Because if Everton were to make it into  the Champions’ League at Arsene Wenger’s expense, well, the repercussions would clearly be far-reaching.

To make that so, Everton’s result at Craven Cottage really needs to at least match Arsenal’s against City, and that seems eminently achievable given the recent form of all concerned.

And that would bring us to the Arsenal game itself and an opportunity that recently we never looked like getting, i.e. another chance to lose our tag as big-game chokers. Let’s be honest, there have been plenty of high points this season but there is still that lingering doubt, that hangover,  from the last regime when it comes to the ‘clutch plays’. The Anfield derby – and to a lesser extent the Goodison one – and the FA Cup tie against Arsenal saw the Everton public let down on the big occasions.

But there just might be one last chance to set that record straight. And if Martinez’s men go into the Arsenal match in touching distance of the one-time title tips, with a game in hand, have they got what it takes to just seize the fucking day this time?

Have they?

It’s mad isn’t it, to be even thinking like this given the way the season looked to be slipping away from us in the past month or so? But, you know, as the man says, just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in.

But they’ll do that, Everton.

The bastards.

Everton 3 Swansea City 2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The weird end-of-season atmosphere continued at Goodison Park. This time a disorganised Everton were outplayed for significant periods but managed to triumph thanks to a handful of inspired moments at either end of the pitch.

With the arse falling out of Arsenal, so to speak, if we win our game in hand on the Gunners and turn them over at Goodison we would lie a mere two points behind the final Champions League place they occupy. So in theory it’s all still to play for.

However, in reality nobody believes that is possible now. The players certainly don’t look to have the same conviction as they had earlier in the season, with a number of them distinctly off-colour and already looking as if they have got one eye on the World Cup and maybe pastures new next season.

During the glorious first half of the season the playing model was all based around being patient in possession but relentless when winning the ball back. Perhaps it’s the demands of a long season with a relatively small squad, but that intensity when the opposition have the ball has definitely tailed off. As a result the ‘transitions’ from defence to attack are that much slower and our performances are looking increasingly disjointed. There are moments of individual inspiration, such as when Ross Barkley tricked his way over Chico Flores’s outstretched leg on 20 minutes and won a penalty, but we don’t look like the same formidable unit we were earlier in the season.

Having injuries to key personnel doesn’t help. Phil Jagielka would be a massive loss to any side – John Stones is progressing admirably for someone so young in such a key position, but in the spell at 3-1 when Swansea were dominant and the first whiff of mutiny was detectable in the Goodison air we could have done with the England centre-half there to kick a few players up the arse: theirs and ours.

Despite some seeing him as a weak link in the Toffees line-up, Steven Pienaar is always missed when he is absent too. He buys everyone an extra yard of space with his close control, especially the fullbacks who usually start their forward runs the moment they see the ball played into the little South African. The idea that the two stalwarts Pienaar and Leon Osman need to be replaced is not an unreasonable one, but perhaps not everyone realises just how difficult that’s going to be.

Aiden McGeady replaced Pienaar from the start against Swansea and looked confident whenever he got on the ball. The Irish winger looked at fault for the visitors’ equaliser though on 33 minutes when left trailing by Angel Rangel. The busy Wayne Routledge picked the Spanish fullback out with a diagonal ball that he squared to rumoured Everton target Wilfried Bony for a tap-in. £15 million sounds a lot for the chunky ODB-looking striker but he is certainly the sort of bruiser who might suit our system even better than the willing but wayward Romelu Lukaku.

Bony put a decent effort just wide after the break as the crowd sensed that the Blues were in danger of getting nothing from the game, such was their defensive shakiness and Swansea’s confidence in possession. However, on 53 minutes a good tackle by Sylvain Distin launched a counter-attack that looked as if it had petered out when Lukaku ran into yet another dead end. However, the on-loan centre-forward extricated himself from a tangle of defenders and forced the ball out wide to Belgian teammate and borderline boo-boy-if-he’s-not-careful Kevin Mirallas. His low cross was a pearler and Lukaku’s sliding finish at the near post gave Michel Vorm no chance.

Five minutes later another good ball from Mirallas, this time a whipped corner, evaded everyone at the near post and left Barkley unmarked to head home into the empty net from close range.

Garry Monk took a break from setting up hilarious booby traps to deter a couple of bungling burglars and introduced niggly ratbag Jonjo Shelvey, a player who really doesn’t deserve the compliment of being booed for his tenuous Kopite connections, and he helped the Swans’ late push that required two really good saves from Tim Howard, not least a flying one-handed stop from a Bony header.

Ashley Williams eventually did convert from a corner well into injury time but Everton managed to do just enough to preserve all three points.

It feels a little bit odd to appear deflated after a 3-2 home win, but again it goes back to the expectations that were raised so much early in the season and now seeing everything begin to sag towards the finish line. Maybe it’s also because we simply expect Everton to win every game at Goodison now as well – if there’s ever even any sign of a struggle we start to question them.

Perhaps all is not lost though. We won’t go to St. James’ Park and win if we look half-arsed – three points from there then, and then hopefully the same at Craven Cottage, would at least send out a signal that we still mean business ahead of the Arsenal match in two weeks.

Anything less than that and all we will really have left is what promises to be a sensationally spiteful encounter with Manchester United on Easter Sunday. The game that has been dubbed: el Cardigano.

Everton 2 Cardiff City 1

train wreck

Results like this one remind you of just how futile all the discussion and analysis of games ultimately is.

Because if Seamus Coleman hadn’t shanked home a jammy volley deep into injury time, sending all the Evertonians home elated, then we would have been glumly dissecting the Blues’ tactics and Roberto Martinez’s substitutions while the visitors giddily celebrated a ‘well-earned point at a really hard place to get a result’.

Coleman did mishit his smash though, after Gareth Barry headed Aiden McGeady’s deep cross back into play, and even man-of-the-match David Marshall was left completely bemused by what ended up looking a John McEnroe mid-court drop shot.

The Cardiff keeper made a handful of great saves, especially in the first half from Gerard Deulofeu’s sweeping shot and Romelu Lukaku’s piledriver at the end of the sort of run from the halfway line that he is always desperate to make. For all his success this season, you can’t help feeling that the buccaneering Belgian often looks a bit frustrated by our patient build-up; he just wants to knock the ball into space and kick the stitches out of the ball. At home at least he almost seems ‘too mobile’, if that makes any sense.

Talking of frustrations, Deulofeu is something of an odd player. At times he just gets his head down to the point of becoming predictable, and even prompted the observation that ‘Barcelona’s B team must be shite’ during the first half. In the second though, it was his strong run and deflected shot that finally beat Marshall on 68 minutes.

Oh, and a quick tip for the Everton forwards, when Deulofeu gets the ball out wide he is going to smash it low to the near post – perhaps consider making a run to meet it.

Shortly after Everton took the lead Martinez appeared to go ahead with the substitution he was preparing before the goal, replacing Deulofeu and the disappointing Kevin Mirallas with McGeady and Steven Naismith. It seemed a bit odd, given that Cardiff would have to come out and have a go, that he’d take the two of the most direct players off, especially the young Spaniard who didn’t seem particularly impressed with the decision.

That looked like it might be the game’s big talking point when, less than 10 minutes after going behind, the Bluebirds drew level as Juan Cala bellied home Peter Whittingham’s swerving free-kick.

File under ‘minty’.

Everton were the better side and deserved to edge the game, but overall it felt like another slightly tired performance. The style of play is set in stone and overall it works for us, but as we’ve said before, when things aren’t going your away it can at times feel a bit cautious and lacking in drama. There are times you feel that Goodison is about to get going and opponents are there to be steamrollered but then we release the pressure valve by instinctively dropping deep and reverting to the same passing drills along the halfway line instead of trying to get ‘in amongst them’ that little bit quicker, before they’ve had a chance to settle back into position.

Anyway, the result’s the thing, especially with Tottenham and Manchester United getting beaten.

And how, for the latter.

Everyone knew it would be hard to follow Alex Ferguson but this now isn’t so much a train wreck as an airliner crash. Into an orphanage. At Christmas.

It certainly amused Kevin Sheedy who clearly enjoyed Super Sunday down the alehouse before settling on the couch with the iPad and a large glass of Merlot while she watched Countryfile. He woke on Monday to not just a request from Everton to remove his anti-David Moyes tweets but also a notification from Amazon that the complete BluRay box set of The Sopranos has been dispatched and a Facebook message from his ex-Judie saying: ‘I can’t stop thinking about what you said. What are we going to do?’

Swansea City Preview FA Cup Special

Cambridge City v Milton Keynes Dons - FA Cup First Round

Let’s win this sucker for Ric Wee.

With home advantage, at least two of the ‘big guns’ going out and Roberto Martinez standing on the sidelines with one brown brogue resting on his trophy, it’s safe to say that Evertonian expectations are building around this FA Cup fifth-round tie.

Let’s be honest, if we dip out here we are left competing for a European competition of some description via the league, and the advantage for the worthwhile one is firmly with Liverpool following recent results and performances. It just is.

When we were winning the game at Old Trafford and the passing at the Emirates this season’s possibilities looked endless, what with a bold new style and a team full of brash young players, so to have the potential outcomes for Martinez’s first campaign whittled down to ‘maybe the Europa League’ in February – a ‘Moyes season’, essentially – would feel like a proper boot in the goolies.

That’s just the fact of the matter. The season is starting to ‘solidify’ here, for wont of a better word, and individual results are going to have a lingering effect on its eventual shape. As a result, there is perhaps real pressure on Martinez and his players for the first time, especially in the wake of the derby performance and the Tottenham result.

Typically, Everton face a Swansea no longer under the laissez faire stewardship of Brian Michael Laudrup, a man whose unarsed nature makes Sven Goran Eriksson look like Don Revie, but instead enjoying one of those caretaker boss revivals that the Toffees seem to stumble into with peculiar regularity.

Garry ‘Harry’ Monk may look like he’s come straight from the same dim, green-glowing bubble-boy ward as Philippe Senderos and only had the feeding tube removed from his nose for the telly, but the man running Tim Sherwood close for this season’s ‘body-warmer bellend’ award certainly ‘galvanised’ his side when they faced Cardiff City 3-0 the other week. Whether coating them with a protective layer of zinc was strictly within the FA rules is open for debate, but it certainly worked as they triumphed 3-0.

The big news for Everton is that Lacina Traore has had even longer to recover thanks to the Crystal Palace game being closed to high-sided players and is expected to feature on Sunday, possibly even from the start. There is certainly an intense curiosity regarding just how the Premier League’s tallest player, who has been playing in the shocking Russian league but cost Monaco £16 million, will actually perform. He just has the potential to be absolutely anything, from sensationally unplayable to something like one of those big luminous fabric figures they have outside car showrooms with the arms that zip up and down in the wind.

Admit it, you can’t wait to be either blown away or laugh your cock off.

Anyway, there is pressure then, but that’s what football is about: important matches with plenty at stake. No risk, no reward and that all that.

Everton are fearsome at home and Martinez has more options to pick from than he has in recent weeks, especially in attacking areas, so the Blues have to be heavy favourites. However, we’ve been in this position plenty of times before and our well-honed instinct is to expect the worst. Under Martinez though it’s all been about ‘new Everton’ instead of ‘typical Everton’ and dispelling those ingrained feelings of dread when in touching distance of glory, with only really the Anfield derby as a blot on his ‘copy book’, whatever one of those is. This is yet another chance to show then that we don’t have to always disappoint when opportunity awaits.

So onto Goodison we stride, heads held high, expecting, nay demanding, a crushing Everton victory and safe passage into the next round.

And talking of making your way to the ground, one chap escorting his 10-year-old lad along Goodison Road on Wednesday night tried to protect him from the whippy winds and flying debris by getting him to walk inside his coat. It quickly became clear though that the greater peril came not from the skies but from the pavement, as from the folds of his Berghaus came the muffled cry: ‘Dad! Dad! I can’t see the dog shit!’

Stay classy Saint Domingos.

See you on the other side.