Stoke City Preview

Mark-Hughes-Everton

Ok, first thing’s first, as we said the other day, a big chunk of this was going to be about Leighton Baines and the various permutations available to cover for his enforced absence. However, we used it all up in a midweek injury special.

As a small addendum to that in-depth analysis we obviously need to add a few extra bits of information regarding the Blues’ defence. First of all there’s the fact that Antonin Alcaraz played 45 minutes for the reserves behind closed doors – are they actually closed or is it just that no one really has any desire to walk through them? – and is in contention to play if Roberto Martinez does choose to go all wing-back on us.

The second point that the previous article got completely wrong was the assertion that Tony Hibbert surely doesn’t figure very highly in the new manager’s thinking. After saying that it was reported in the press, by people who actually know what they are talking about, that the doughty fullback is due to be offered a new contract to keep him at Goodison beyond next summer. It probably makes sense as you couldn’t imagine Hibbert being reintroduced to the wild could you, after a whole career at Everton? He’s one of those fellas you could see leaving and playing 22 minutes for Bolton Wanderers before being subbed and then subsequently retiring. Don’t be surprised if he eventually ends up in some sort of coaching role with the Blues – one of those vague ‘looking after the kids’ ones that all clubs just seem to hand out to ‘good lads’ who they like having around.

Apart from those two things though, the last article was right on the pesos. Are we getting to the point now where people are starting to realise ‘he’s not just pretending to be inept here, he really is clueless’?

No? We will. Let’s crack on for now though.

Stoke City, or ‘Stoowk’ as they are known to the locals. It’s an odd place, not quite Midlands, not really the North West. You might go there to get a new clutch for your van or maybe a decent deal on a second-hand taxi, but for most people it’s really just a motorway marker on the way home. If you haven’t had a piss by Stoke then you are holding it until you get home.

‘Ooh, I wonder what Stapelely Water Gardens are like?’

As for their football team, well, one of this season’s catchphrases in the Premier League is ‘Stoke play more football than people expect’. However, that’s not saying that much given that no one expects them to play at all following years of Tony Pulis sending out teams pumped up like a pitbulls with lazzy bands round their nackers, all two-footed tackles and slashing forearms.

There’s a new man at the helm at the Britannia now though, Mark Hughes, or Sparky as he’s often known, because everyone who meets him would like to see him get the electric chair. He really is one of English football’s odder figures, the softly-spoken Welshman who is almost uniformly despised by supporters across the land. You only had to see the frankly brilliant i.e. utterly crackers, demonstrations by Stoke fans when he was appointed to realise just how unpopular he is. Good going in what is, essentially, the entertainment business

hughes out

There are plenty of wankers in football, but Hughes seems to grate so much because of the transformation he’s undertaken in the public eye. His journey, if you will.

In his prime as a player he was a genuine hard-case – a diving get like, but still one of the hardest-working ‘handfuls’ of a centre-forward you could ever imagine. With his physical style and Kenny Powers haircut he gave the impression of an honest but passionate country boy, someone you could imagine driving a Land Rover across the moors, fighting in the local pub but then weeping like a baby over the death of his sheepdog.  Couldn’t you?

At some point during his managerial career though he just became all, well, ‘Pardew’ is probably the best word. There’s something about his Isaac Newton haircut, the weird Patton jut of his jaw and even the way on Sky Sports News he is always filmed getting out of an Audi and striding dead purposefully through some glass doors while adjusting the buttons on his suit with the oversized flower that says he just seems to really rate himself far too highly.

Everyone has their own personal ‘why they hate Mark Hughes’ tale, and for Evertonians there are two main reasons. Firstly, as a player he represents a period of utterly miserable signings under Walter Smith, when Blues were forced to look for the good in has-beens like him, Paul Gascoigne and David Ginola. Even typing that out there you wonder ‘did that actually happen?’

More recently though, as manager of Manchester City Hughes is widely believed to have acted like a right twat over the transfer of Joleon Lescott. It was a weird one that whole deal though – Everton came out of it smelling of roses eventually but it would be fascinating to know what really went on behind the scenes. David Moyes always insists that he never wanted the player to leave but the fact that City kept on coming back in for him made you think that they were being told in private that a deal could be done as long as they paid silly money and he handed in a transfer request.

‘Lescott is worth more than the sum total of all the bugle crumbs down Nigella Lawson’s cleavage,’ Everton never said at the time, because no one knew about her habits then, so this bit makes no sense.

Ultimately everyone was happy in the end though. Everton got the cash to spend on Sylvain Distin and, er, Diniyar ‘needs a full preseason’ Bilyaletdinov and Johnny Heitinga, City got their man and Lescott ended up with a league title and a platinum bathroom. Bingo.

Anyway, back to the present, and everyone is on a high following the derby dramatics, so this game has all the ingredients for an absolute stinker. Stoke will be happy with a point, and with all the energetic grewlers in their team they are better equipped than most to come and frustrate Everton. And if the Blues are as clueless at set-pieces as they were against the other lot then it could be an extremely uncomfortable afternoon.

Or we might just batter them. You never really know, do you?

Everton 1 Stoke City 0

kevin-mirallas

First thing’s first – that fella and the two girls down the front of the Park End who hang round at the end, dancing mad so they can get their faces on the camera. It was mildly charming when the announcer blew the dust off his ‘Best of KC and the Sunshine Band’ at the end of the Manchester City game, but after this dreary affair against Stoke they just seemed to be milking it.

Remember, this is Everton.

Predictably enough it was a bollocks game against the most joyless side in the division. Thankfully a pearler of a goal from Kevin ‘living next door to‘ Mirallas provided more or less the only highlight. But really, what a highlight it was.

On 27 minutes, after Jonathan Walters had struck the returning Tim Howard’s crossbar, the Belgian winger picked the ball up in his own half, broke through a lazy tackle by Steven N’Zonzi and burst across the halfway line. With his head swivelling frantically, looking for support that just wasn’t coming, Mirallas realised that the only option was to go alone. He dummied the last defender, Geoff Cameron, cut onto his left foot and beat flavour-of-the-month Asmir Begovic with one of those low shots that are officially labelled ‘clinical’.

There was more than a touch of Luis Suarez about the goal, apart from the fact that Mirallas never hurled himself to the turf screaming nor tried to bite anyone. He didn’t apologise for stamping on anyone’s Achilles before stamping on their Achilles either. And his teeth weren’t trying to flee his head in protest. And he never mentioned the colour of an opponent’s skin either.

Affectionately.

Seven times.

Other than that though.

Ooh, you wouldn’t let it lie.

There was genuinely little else to report from the game. Everton were without Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar but with Phil Jagielka returning David Moyes chose to experiment with a system that looked like a fancy three-man defence at times while at others it just seemed as if John Heitinga was playing full-back. Given that Stoke lack pace and posed virtually no threat, apart from high balls that Sylvain Distin dealt with superbly, the defensive formation never really mattered. Against Spurs though, when the defenders will have to really on their instincts, it would be some gamble to go with a system that they have to think about for even a fraction of a second.

After the game Phil Jagielka got it spot on when he said of the Wigan Athletic game: “Maybe it was a general reminder that possibly before we play the good stuff we make sure we stick to our guns and get the dirty side out of the way: the running, the rough and tumble, tackles.

“Maybe for the Wigan game we turned up and didn’t do those first and foremost and got punished.”

To their credit they did all that unglamorous day-job stuff against Stoke, on our minty pitch, and gave themselves the ‘platform’ to win the game thanks to one moment of brilliance.

Predictably enough the Blues’ manager was asked again about his contract situation in his post-match interview and, as ever, he gave his best glare and played a straight bat – he’s not going to make a decision until the summer. Except he already has.

There is nothing that can happen between now and the end of the season that can persuade him to commit at least the next three years of his career to Everton. He knows he has pushed the envelope as far as he can with the resources available. One season in the Champions League won’t make a bit of difference and in terms of gaining a competitive advantage domestically the new telly money is irrelevant because everyone else is getting it too, so it will just drive prices and wages up. Only an owner who wants no return whatsoever and is in fact prepared to mindlessly burn money like those at Manchester City or Chelsea can significantly improve Everton to the point where they are realistically challenging for the top honours – just ask Arsenal fans – and Moyes is almost certainly privy to the fact that, well, there isn’t one of those on the horizon.

The next manager coming in really does have some challenge on his hands – not only matching what Moyes has done, but actually improving on it. Let’s just thank our lucky stars that whoever he is he has so far managed to fly under the radar of the likes of Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers.

While Moyes is still around for the rest of this season though there remains talk of finishing fourth in the table. On the plus side, all our remaining home matches look winnable, but trips to White Hart Lane, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and Anfield don’t particularly bode well. However, another way of looking at those games is that they at least put our fate in our own hands, and even a draw at Spurs could make things pretty interesting.

Realistically though, we’ll be doing well to finish above Liverpool and make it into the Europa League. That actually reads like a bit of a low key ending, and it’s not meant to. If you like footy and watching the match then overall this season’s been dead enjoyable, regardless of where we finish.

Stoke City 1 Everton 1

Already bored of it

Mea culpa.

In the preview we dwelt on the snide side to Stoke’s game and then lo and behold the biggest talking point from a rather shite game was the violent conduct of one of Everton’s players.

You can talk about provocation and make all the excuses you like for Marouane Fellaini, but if one of their players had stuck the head on one of ours and then followed it up with a ‘community centre ladies’ self-defence class right after Weight Watchers’ palm strike we would be demanding at least some sort of custodial sentence as punishment. Fellaini had to release a statement apologising for his attacks on the admittedly unlovable Ryan Shawcross, and David Moyes was furious with his record signing, presumably for the actions themselves to a certain extent but probably more for the repercussions that they invited.

As it stands, Fellaini will certainly get a retrospective FA ban which will be a blow in itself, but it was only sheer luck that the officials never spotted at least one offence during the game and sent him off. That would have put the solitary point earned at considerable risk after poor defending, a dreadful finish and some shocking goalkeeping had already kiboshed the chances of taking all three.

The match was tight and tense throughout, neither side played much great football – no, honestly – and clear chances were at a premium.

Glenn Whelan appeared to handle Steven Pienaar’s shot during the opening exchanges but the referee and the hordes of bum-fluff-muzzied growlers in the crowd were not impressed. Everton definitely thought it was a Stone Island penalty though.

That’s the last one of them now.

When Darron Gibson’s half-intercepted through-ball popped up in the six-yard box Nikica Jelavic miskicked completely but Steven Naismith showed a bit more composure to nick a shot past the sprawling Asmir Begovic. However, with the travelling Blues poised to give a veritable whoop and hurrah Shawcross lunged in and hacked the goalbound ball clear.

The big defender was more or less the focus of attention for the whole match. On 38 minutes, under no pressure whatsoever, he got his head on what was a bit of an ‘I’ve really got no fucking idea here’ sort of chip into the area from Pienaar and sent the ball skimming over Begovic and into the top corner of his own goal.

Gift horse, mouth, and all that jazz.

Minutes later, at the end of the best move of the game, Leighton Baines cut the ball back from the bye-line, behind the recovering defenders, leaving Leon Osman time and space to pick his spot. Straight ahead into the fucking big net looked the most sensible option but for some reason the normally cool midfielder tried to side-foot an effort into the far corner. If it was on target he would have struggled to miss the keeper and two defenders – cunningly though he took them out of the equation by planting the ball well wide of them and the goal.

Tony Pulis admitted afterwards that he gave the half-time team talk that we suspect almost every manager facing Everton has dished out this season, letting his side know that they should be dead and buried but instead have a golden opportunity to put matters right. And as is so often the case they did just that when, on 51 minutes, Kenwyne Jones – no, still alive and well apparently – got on the end of a bollocks ball forward and rose more or less unchallenged just inside the Everton box and sent a header towards the bottom corner of the goal.

It wasn’t particularly powerful and travelled a reasonable distance – a re-enactment of Gordon Banks’s save from Pele was not required to keep it out. Unfortunately though, Tim Howard’s petition to have Premier League goalposts wrapped in padding a la professional rugby has fallen on deaf ears and so we were once again treated to the Everton keeper in an unedifying pose as he ushered the ball awkwardly into the net. You know the drill by now, his face says ‘angry De Niro’ while his body adopts a shape known in most coaching manuals as ‘the electrocuted cat’.

Seriously, to get gifted a lead at somewhere as awkward as Stoke and then blow it so cheaply borders on the downright unprofessional. You can’t keep doing things like that and expect, or in fact deserve, to get anything out of the season.

Jones almost put the home side ahead shortly after he equalised, bundling past Baines and Howard and then kneeing the ball against the post. The rest of the half was pretty grim though, with only a few half chances and Fellaini’s alehouse straightener moves briefly illuminating affairs.

There’s not really much to add, apart from perhaps something about Brendan Rodgers’ latest affectation, a ‘lucky’ Liverpool scarf worn jauntily in the Roberto Mancini style. Whereas the Italian opted for a classic blue and white bar scarf though, Bodger boldly went for a highly flammable Church Street stall effort instead. The only thing you can really say in defence of the massive attention-seeking phony is that he did stop short of donning one of those featuring a picture of Shanks looking like Bela Lugosi made out of Lego.

Stoke City And That

Not Gareth Barry

Kevin Gameiro’s waiting, talking Italian.

Well, more likely talking French, because the alleged Everton target is in fact from France. So it all kind of makes sense.

A story that appears to have originated in the Daily Mirror and ‘spread like runny shite’, as some ming ex-workmate used to say, has David Moyes poised like a cartoon cat with an axe, ready to pounce on a number of transfer targets once they poke their twitching noses out of the hole in the skirting board that is the January transfer window.

What’s the cheese? That’s what you are asking. What’s the cheese in this scenario? Well, the cheese that is meant to be tempting Graneiro from Paris Saint-Germain and another striker, Wissam Ben Yedder from Toulouse, is the £7 million that Galatasaray are said to be offering for Johnny Heitinga.

And filling the gap left by last season’s player of the season will be Joleon Lescott, returning on loan from Manchester City. Allegedly.

Given that Moyes is notoriously reluctant to impart even the smallest nugget of information to the upstanding men of the local and national press we can only guess that he overdid the Aftershocks on a Christmas night out before laying bare his convoluted transfer plans to any fucker at the bar who would listen.

‘…And then, and this is the friggin’ genius bit, you’ll love this, we’ll just get scabby-head back and them scruffs will pay most of his wages…Voi-fucking-la! Do you like me cardy? Honestly, New Look. No, seriously… AND THE BOYS OF THE NYPD CHOIR ARE SINGING BROADWAY DAVE…’

Before the rip-roaring excitement of the January transfer dealings though, there is the more prosaic matter of playing some association football matches, starting with Saturday’s visit to the Britannia Stadium, the charming home of Stoke City Football Club.

Their manager, Tony Pulis, looks like one of those fellas in the gym changies who cocks one leg up on the bench and over-enthusiastically dries his undercarriage while looking his mate straight in the eye and moaning about problems with contractors going over budget. He’d then leave loads of talc everywhere, the cunt.

Anyway, him, he’s been complaining about referees meting out unfair treatment to his players because of their reputations, hence Stoke finding themselves at the bottom of the Fair Play League. Obviously, another way of looking at that is they are in fact top of the ‘Horrible Dirty Bastards Table’. To put that into a little bit of context, West Ham are next, and they are also managed by someone whose teams – rightly or wrongly, but mostly rightly, let’s be honest – are always thought to be ‘a bit naughty’.

In short, stop being so disingenuous – you know perfectly well why your sides pick up loads of cards.

In Stoke’s favour, they do all the legitimate physical stuff really well. They play to their strengths, put teams under immense pressure in their own box and Pulis gets even players who are used to more refined surroundings to buy into his team ethos. That’s great management.

The reason Stoke don’t receive as much praise as he thinks they deserve though is because there is always a feeling that they are looking to gain advantage by outright intimidation, especially early in games when the referee is less likely to get his cards out. It’s then that they leave their foot in, go through the back of people and generally try to put the thought in the minds of the opposition’s creative players that if they linger on the ball they are likely to get their Achilles pulped.

You can almost guarantee that within the first 10 minutes of this game on Saturday someone will clatter Steven Pienaar before immediately leaping to their feet, screaming at him to get up and then miming a dive. They really are horrible shitehawks in that respect.

They can play a bit though, especially at home where they have conceded only two league goals this season. That’s some record.

Everton need to be bold and get the ball down and play. If Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic start to show a bit more savvy, come short and hold on to the ball on the edge of the box better than they have they will win loads of free kicks against Stoke’s physically imposing but often overeager centre-halves. If the Everton forwards stand stationary in the area though, just waiting for crosses, they will be playing into the home side’s hands.

At the other end, well, you just have to hope that the referee gives Tim Howard a bit of help standing up to the buffeting he is undoubtedly in for. Because, let’s face it, if we know the Everton keeper gets queasy at the thought of anyone invading his personal space, you can bet a shattered eye-socket that Pulis is well aware of it too.

Go get ’em, tigers.