Monthly Archives: September 2014

On being a goal down

Tony Hibbert's best chance of stopping opponents

Tony Hibbert’s best chance of stopping opponents

Thanks largely to Tim Howard, mercifully back in form after his extended World Cup hangover, Everton went into the closing stages of the Derby just one goal worse off, a soft free kick expertly converted by an otherwise anonymous Steven Gerrard. “There’s always a chance in the last ten minutes” I told my son – cliches within a family being excusable. And so it came to pass – or rather to screaming half-volley, as Phil Jagielka exorcised an early season demon or two with a Goal of the Month contender.

Truth be told, I had given up on my expected chance arriving. Too often, despite having Naismith, McGeady, Eto’o and Lukaku on the field, and an enterprising John Stones making an extra man in midfield, there were only two Blue shirts in the box as crosses were played in – decent sides get three in there and the best have four. Overloading the penalty area played a big part in the “David Beckham is a world class player” myth – so often Manchester United had so many targets for his crosses that he could barely miss. Everton’s crosses missed all day long today.

But (and wasn’t it nice to see opponents suffer for the same fault that so often has dogged Everton when we hold a one goal advantage) Liverpool were forced deep, deep in stoppage time and they couldn’t get out to block our captain, who had taken up a good position for his wonder strike. He might never hit a ball as sweetly again – but that doesn’t matter now.

Two other points can be taken from the match, both regularly mentioned here. Tony Hibbert isn’t far off 34 and, with just 11 appearances since the end of the 2011-12 season, could hardly have been expected to slot in against Raheem Sterling. It was a relief to see him put out of his misery with the arrival of Tyias Browning, another local lad, but bigger, quicker and stronger. It was an encouraging cameo from twenty-year old, who can expect rather more game-time before the season is out. One can’t say the same for dear old Hibbo.

Gareth Barry, just three days younger than Hibbert, was lucky to avoid a second yellow card with some injudicious tackling and his “arm in front of the face” block. He was fortunate that James McCarthy (like my Man of the Match, Tim Howard) had re-discovered his best form just in time to cover runners and block and tackle for the full 95 minutes. It’s not uncommon for players to lose half a yard, but Barry doesn’t have that luxury, as he was never quick in the first place. Maybe, like Leon Osman, Barry might be better deployed in the last twenty minutes of a match to shore up the coming midfield axis of McCarthy + Besic / Gibson or to keep things tight for an hour before giving way to McGeady or Osman, introduced to open up tiring defences. Ninety minutes, twice a week, looks too much just now.

Cameras panning across players and fans decked in red and those decked in blue, told you everything about how the clubs will view the sharing of the points – but it is just one point like any other. At least that’s what I keep telling myself…

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Reviewing the situation – where are Everton just now?

krasnodar-mapIt’s where we are in May that counts. The table doesn’t lie. It’s over the full 38 games that we’ll show our true colours etc etc etc. Such statements may well be selections from the Big Book of Premier League Manager Cliches, but they’re no less true for that. But we’re not here to speak the bleedin’ obvious – that’s Alan Shearer’s job – we’re here to examine where we are after four games – more than 10% of the season.

We’re ninth, which isn’t bad, but below both recent custom and practice and expectations – at least that’s the orthodox view. But it’s not mine – I think. We played two Champions League teams (albeit at home) and came away with just the one point – disappointing, but hardly beyond the realms of probability and we were only a few minutes vs Arsenal from all three, which would have made for a good, if not outstanding return on the Goodison Londoners double-header. The draw at Leicester does not look quite so bad after their start and opening day fixtures against newly promoted teams can often be a bit of a banana skin. Five points after four games is, context-free, a middling return.

What of that context though? The usual suspects are ahead of us already, but our most direct rivals have not got away, for all the relative gloom around Evertonians until West Brom presented us with two goals. Plaudit-laden Tottenham are just a couple of points to the good and Arsenal and Liverpool occupy the two places above us, with six points, despite all that spending. If we, not unreasonably, write off oil-fuelled Chelsea and Manchester City and equally not unreasonably expect Aston Villa, Swansea and Southampton to drop back into the pack, some late summertime Keystone Kops defending has barely cost us any real ground.

Except that it probably has. Thursday sees the start of the Europa League with a tough home fixture against Wolfsburg. We’re back at Goodison for a winnable fixture vs Crystal Palace next Sunday, before an awkward midweek visit to Swansea for a League Cup match that is likely to see squad players given a run out by both managers.

Then come three games that will go far to telling how this season will go. The last Saturday of the month brings a trip across The Park for a game that we, more than ever, dare not lose. Then it’s the long and difficult journey towards the Caucasus for the visit to Russians Krasnodar, before rounding off the triple header with a midday match (less than three days later) at Old Trafford. How the squad deals, physically and mentally with that period of eight days, will reveal much. Oh yes, November brings six matches in 30 days and December as many as eight in 26 days.

So that’s the other aspect of context. Four PL games in four weeks, with an international break in the middle, constituted an easing into the season, with the opportunity for the medical staff to work on little knocks and for the coaching staff to drill the players at Finch Farm. If the four points squandered late on in the first two games of the season came from unexpectedly sloppy play, can that case be made if Manchester United’s huge squad without European distractions pop in a couple in the last ten minutes on Sunday October 5? You would be a hard man or woman to say that – which is why we may well live to regret not having nine points now, having made hay while the sun shone, in preparation for the grind that awaits us.