Chelsea Preview (and Swansea and that)

grace jones

Apart from mad twattings, open goal misses by Hugo Rodallega and hilarious Steven Caldwell mishaps at the back, Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic sides were chiefly known for coming on strong towards the end of the season. Hopefully the same – the tails up during the tail end bit – can also be true of his first season in charge of Everton, because after something of a dip since Christmas there are still footballing worlds to be conquered for his Stanley Park Spartans.

Well, the FA Cup anyway.

Unfortunately, thanks to the contempt for supporters that is more or less becoming Arsenal’s hallmark, only five thousand Evertonians will reap the fruits of the Blues’ labours against Swansea and get to watch the quarter-final live at the Emirates. Honestly, because of the high profile nature of the takeovers at Manchester City and Chelsea, the Gunners have somehow managed to portray themselves as some sort of bastions of fairness and good taste in the top four, but there’s no worse cunts around for acting as if they are doing the peasants, and that includes their own punters – resplendent in their Dr Dre headphones – a favour by letting them into their new ground.

But that’s for another day.

The Blues secured their place in the draw by beating a weakened Swansea side 3-1 at Goodison. They made harder work of it, especially in the first half and despite a dream opening when, after only a few minutes Lacina Traore marked his last first game in an oversized Everton nightie by gracefully back-ankling Sylvain Distin’s low shot past Gerhard Tremmel.

Unfortunately though the big unit hardly touched the ball again until he got hawked off in the second half and from the position he is at now, having been out for so long with injury and only playing in Russia when he was fit, it seems to be asking a lot for him to get up to speed with the English game and to the level of fitness necessary for him to make much of an impact for the Toffees between now and the end of the season. For a start, Romelu Lukaku will probably be back after the Chelsea game and, on the evidence of the Swansea tie, Steven Naismith is also quite a way ahead of the elongated Ivorian attacker in terms of the ability to lead the thin blue line.

The Scottish striker has hardly had it easy since joining the club but he has certainly improved under Martinez and has a knack of snatching important goals. Indeed, his was the decisive intervention when, on for Traore, he instinctively anticipated Neil Taylor’s backpass and clipped the ball past Tremmel and into the Gwladys Street net. Naismith, who probably moves more intelligently than Lukaku – just nowhere near as quickly – was also poleaxed for the penalty that Leighton Baines converted to seal the victory.

The trip to Arsenal hardly represents the most straightforward of the possible quarter-final draws but is there any great reason to fear the Gunners? The last time we went down there, fresh after beating Manchester United at Old Trafford, we put on a performance that perhaps encapsulated the Martinez era so far. In terms of possession and intelligence on the ball, Everton were incredible that night and probably only the liquid football of Bayern Munich has surpassed that performance at that stadium this season. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the brewstered Bavarians overshadowed Everton in their quality and ruthlessness in the ‘money positions’ in the final third.

By the time we return though, the scorer of the Blues’ wondrous equaliser in the leaguer game, Gerard Deulofeu, should be back nearer full fitness, and hopefully Ross Barkley will no longer playing like his piles are killing him, so the Blues might just have enough to edge their way into the semi-finals.

It will certainly be an easier task than overturning Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this weekend.  Because say what you like about boring little narcissist Jose Mourinho, for instance he’s a boring little narcissist, but that cat knows his stuff. The best example of this fact is the way the press and public alike openly mocked him for ‘losing the plot’ for hardly using Juan Mata, but almost £40 million in transfer fee later the admittedly talented Spaniard looks as lost as everyone else as part of David Moyes’s Old Trafford confuse-a-thon – and just wait until they have to start trying to shoehorn Marouane Fellaini back into that side again – while Mourinho’s Blues are beginning to take shape as a strong-running, high pressure counter-attacking team.

The sort that can really punish teams who are prone to dithering on the ball at the back.

Just saying.

When Chelsea were struggling for goals early in the season Mourinho’s faculties were again openly questioned because he let Lukaku go out on loan. But much as we are desperate to see the burly Belgian back in an Everton shirt the young striker has displayed enough weaknesses already this season that you could definitely make a case again for Mourinho judging that situation spot on.

‘He’s good,’ he would argue. ‘But not yet good enough for a side competing for the top prizes.’

It’s just about our toughest game of the year then, this one. As ever though, we go with that distinct whiff of Roberto romance surrounding us. We do enough of the basics really well that we almost always give ourselves a ‘platform’ to perform in any game and then beyond that we have just enough players capable of doing the unpredictable that no win for us, even at somewhere formidable like Stamford Bridge or the Emirates, would really come as that big a surprise to anyone.

In short, we’re still ace and we now have added Duncan Ferguson on the first-team coaching staff. The surly Scot has been doing all his coaching badges and serving his apprenticeship with the Everton kids. No doubt he has worked extremely diligently if he has impressed so much that someone who takes the game as seriously as Martinez wants him as part of his inner circle, and for that he is to be applauded. Still, for all that hard work and studious dedication, the first time that there is even the slightest hint of an altercation near the Toffees’ technical area you can guarantee that all sorts of fat lads and frail grandparents alike will be out of their ejector seats and imploring him to ‘FUCKENTWATIMDUNCANLAD!’

Which is the way it should be, clearly.

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.

Spurs and Palace and That

Tony Pulis, who has been linked with Middlesbrough, was sacked by Stoke City in May

After the frustration of the Tottenham game you couldn’t really ask for more than a match at home straight away against one of the Premier League’s strugglers.

Familiar failings undid the Toffees at White Hart Lane – they enjoyed loads of possession but after the first half an hour or so, when they had a handful of chances, they really struggled to turn that sense of ‘control’ into something more threatening. We do 80% of the work brilliantly, arguably as good as anyone, but without any genuine centre-forward, never mind the hugely expensive ones leading the line of our nearest competitors, it often feels like we’re dependent on either a bit of luck or an incredible team effort to get the ball in the back of the net.

Leon Osman, teed up by the hardworking and intelligent Steven Naismith, drew a great save from Hugo Lloris in the early stages, but after that, as the Blues worked the ball to the wings with ease, you never felt any great conviction that the eventual ball into the box was going to really hurt the Spurs defence.

When you are struggling to score, lapses of concentration at the other end will often prove doubly punishing, and the winning goal, scored on 64 minutes, only served to underline that. Kyle Walker took a quick free-kick on the halfway line, chipping the ball to Emmanuel Adebayor as the Everton defence all turned their back on the play. Before they could fully recover the spindly striker had already beaten Tim Howard low at his near post.

Not great.

Roberto Martinez tried to force an equaliser by subjecting Spurs to ‘death by jinky winger’, throwing Gerard Deulofeu and Aiden McGeady on alongside Kevin Mirallas, but despite one great slaloming run by the Belgian that was always going to end up with a mad shot into the crowd, the home side always looked capable of defending their 18-yard box in the face of Everton’s constant probing and wing-switching.

It wasn’t a terrible performance, but perhaps it was an indicator of the limitations of the squad that we couldn’t even get a point against an ordinary-looking Spurs side that, despite the upturn in fortunes under Tim Sherwood, hasn’t fully recovered from the sale of Gareth Bale and the dubious spending of André Villas Boas.

Meanwhile Liverpool were smashing the granny out of Arsenal and moving five points clear of us. There is still ‘a lot of football to play’ as they say, but at the moment it’s hard to envisage us winning two more games than them during the remainder of the season. They seem to be through on goal with two or three passes every time they attack at the moment where we must surely have more touches in the opponents’ area without troubling the keeper than any other side in the division.

There’s talk of the massive Lacina Traore of the Jacomo fire sale cardigan making his first appearance against Palace as Martinez at least has more players of indeterminate fitness to choose from. Perhaps he can provide a bit of focus and some end product to compliment all the neat and tidy approach play.

One of Everton’s most hair-pulling performances of the season came in the corresponding fixture at Selhurst Park, when their passing game was undone by a packed defence and a number of breakaways that fortunately had Jerome Thomas and Yannick Bolasie on the end of them and not Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. That was the old relegation-doomed Palace as well, before they parted ways with Ian Holloway and appointed surprise package Tony Pulis as manager.

You have to hand it to him, he had become something of a joke figure at Stoke City – his name sort of shorthand for a particular brand of unsophisticated football – and it’s probably fair to assume that a lot of Crystal Palace supporters were dubious about him getting the job, especially with exotic figures like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer out there being touted at the time. In a short space of time though Pulis has made Palace a much tougher proposition to face. Not only that, he brought in a couple of decent attacking players during the transfer window, Tom Ince and Joe Ledley, adding more goal threat and improving their chances of survival no end.

Fair play like.

For Everton it’s really a question of carrying on as we have been, hoping that Traore does adapt quickly, Romelu Lukaku recovers from his injury and reproduces his early-season form, and that as the likes of Deulofeu and Ross Barkley get fitter we can pick up a bit more momentum, picking up points and hopefully progress in the increasingly important-looking FA Cup.

Because even though it was just a narrow defeat at Tottenham, when the stakes are so high the margins for error become increasingly fine. You can’t help wonder now if we require a consistent run of wins for the remainder of the season that is just a little bit beyond this present squad.