Friday, 18 November 2011

Fear and Loathing in Walton (or: Everton vs. Wolves Preview)

Revolution is in the air.

Mubarak ousted. Gaddafi killed. Wall Street occupied. Kenwright..?

The Blue Union will hold its second demonstration against the financial mismanagement of Everton Football Club tomorrow at 2pm, beginning at the field on Spellow Lane and presumably culminating with a march to the Directors’ entrance at Goodison Park. Given yesterday’s debacle involving emails allegedly leaked from the account of Ian Ross (Everton’s Head of Communications), it seems likely that what this event will lack in clown costumes and John Heitinga cakes, it will make up for with the number of disgruntled Evertonians in attendance.

Considering the laundry list of failures and farces that has been compiled under the present board, you’d have to say that their PR department have done a remarkable job in keeping the fanbase generally happy over the last decade. Obviously they owe a lot thanks to David Moyes for achieving league positions that rarely make sense, the two Manchester clubs for paying massive sums of money for Wayne Rooney and Joleon Lescott, and to the fans themselves – the majority of whom have remained apathetic towards the off-field running of the club while the team has been doing well.

Sadly for Kenwright and Friends, you can’t fool all of the people all the time, which is why it should come as no surprise to them that the jig is finally up. The money for Kings Dock isn’t ring-fenced, the Fortress Sports Fund didn’t go into the bank on Monday, and Destination Kirkby wasn’t ‘world-class’, ‘effectively free’ or even legal. Now that the team is going backwards and the banks are refusing to accept Dave Hickson anecdotes as legal tender, something has to give.

Kenwright has been in a hole since Kirkby collapsed, and while his determination to just keep digging no matter what is almost admirable, his journey to the centre of the Earth must surely be coming to an end after the release of these emails. The club has done a good job of presenting a united front up to now, with Moyes, along with past and present players, routinely backing up CEO Robert Elstone’s claims that Everton remain ‘fiercely ambitious’, but all of that looks like a load of bollocks when senior staff members are allegedly describing the club as being in ‘financial meltdown’ in between drawing up plans to divide the supporters through manipulation of the media.

Though there’s definitely a funny side to a lot of was written in those emails – the idea of a man who seems to spend much of his day posting snide remarks on fan forums questioning the productivity of the CEO was particularly amusing – there were also parts that are at best worrying, and at worst scary.

Rumours of the board’s asking price being a sticking point with potential buyers would become ever more believable if the comment about it costing ‘upwards of £25m’ to acquire a 25% stake in the club turns out to be true, while the insistence that the Blue Union’s message is nothing more than ill-informed scaremongering will become a lot harder to swallow if the club are found to be dictating the Echo’s coverage of what is becoming a nasty, bitter episode. Such paranoid behaviour, along with in-fighting amongst prominent employees, certainly creates the image that these are people cracking under the pressure of having something to hide.

'Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room!'

Still, there was some good news in the form of Marouane Fellaini signing a new contract, even if the timing of the announcement was a bit suspicious. Fellaini has developed into one of the better central midfielders in the Premier League over the last two years, and at 23 years old is only going to improve further. Between him, Jack Rodwell and Ross Barkley Everton have the makings of a very, very good midfield.

There’s also a game tomorrow, in case anyone had forgotten. Everton are playing Wolves at home, which is never much fun, but after turning them over at Molineux last time the two sides met it should be a game that Moyes and his players more than fancy themselves in.

John Heitinga, who is rumoured to be taking his Gravesen 2.0 act to Roma in January, will probably drop out in favour of Sylvain Distin with Fellaini coming straight back into midfield. God knows what, if anything, will happen up front.

Wolves will be strong and direct, with the horrible Karl Henry looking to win plaudits from knobheads like Martin Keown and Lee Dixon by going through the back of Fellaini about fifteen times before the referee finally books him for shame’s sake.

Everton are currently 17th, and while it’s not quite time to panic, they don’t want to find themselves down that end of the table much longer. A win over Wolves, who sit 13th, would push Everton two points above them and hopefully represent the start of a much-needed run of positive results.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Newcastle United 2 - 1 Everton

You could write these match reports before the games even kick off.

David Moyes made two changes to the team that was beaten 1-0 by Manchester United a week ago, with Phil Neville and Royston Drenthe replacing the suspended Marouane Fellaini and seemingly despised Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. John Heitinga and Phil Jagielka carried on in the centre of defence, which came as a surprise seeing as though Sylvain Distin had recovered from the injury that kept him out against United.

Everton started brightly and created the game’s first real chance; Ryan Taylor misjudged Louis Saha’s flick, allowing Seamus Coleman a chance to shoot on the half-volley, but the Irishman blasted high and wide when he really should have done better.

Coleman has been struggling lately. It seems like opposing teams have sussed him out, leaving him looking a bit too limited to cut it as a Premier League-level winger. In fairness to him, he’s a natural full-back and looked brilliant there during his loan spell at Blackpool, so there’s no reason not to think he’ll end up a long-term fixture in defence once Neville replaces Moyes as manager and appoints Tony Hibbert as his assistant.

As is usually the way, Everton were punished for Coleman’s miss when Heitinga turned Danny Simpson’s cross into his own net after 12 minutes. It was hardly a Kolarov-style whip from Simpson, but it’d be harsh to blame Heitinga when Tim Howard, the world’s quietest tourette sufferer, declined to give him any kind of shout.

The Blues responded well to going behind, with Jack Rodwell and Leon Osman drawing saves from Tim Krul, who is pretty good despite looking like the archetypal dodgy flapper, while Saha smashed the ball out of the stadium when through on goal – an effort made doubly frustrating by the fact it was a waste of Jagielka’s first accurate pass of the season.

Once again Everton were made to rue their wastefulness in front of goal, as Ryan Taylor slammed a belter of a half-volley beyond Howard on 29 minutes. Taylor then almost fluked himself a second when he over hit a cross that came back off the bar, and Everton hit the woodwork themselves after Saha reacted quickest to a loose ball and was unlucky to see his first-time shot strike the post.

Moyes was forced to make his first substitution just 41 minutes in when Neville went down under what looked like a fairly light challenge; suggesting he probably shouldn’t have been on the pitch in the first place. Distin was the replacement, and while it was a very negative change to make when 2-0 down, I think it was really more of an admission that Jagielka and Heitinga were struggling to cope with the physicality of Demba Ba and Leon Best.

With Heitinga shifted into midfield things were looking bleak. That was until Drenthe’s corner was met by Rodwell, who powered a superb header past Krul to make it 2-1 just before half-time. The goal sent Everton into the break on a high, and they used the momentum to make a strong start to the second-half.

Tim Cahill, who hasn’t scored in about fifteen years, came on to end the Heitinga midfield nightmare and boost Everton’s push for an equaliser, but the chances dried up after Dan Gosling (remember him?) blocked Saha’s goal-bound strike with his arm. As Gosling was on the floor and didn’t really move it’d be harsh to say he should have been sent off, but it was a stonewall penalty regardless.

Arguably the worst moment of the game arrived on 81 minutes when James McFadden made his first appearance since returning on a free transfer. He was never up to much first time around, so the sight of him emerging from the dugout looking like an extra from Rab C. Nesbitt probably did little to worry Newcastle’s defenders.

McFadden has never had any pace, which might explain Moyes throwing him in despite appearing as though he’s been on the Yak diet, so we could only hope that he had at least matured as a footballer in the three and a half years since the manager decided he wasn’t good enough. Sadly, his attempt to curl one in from an impossible angle when there were numerous blue shirts to aim for confirmed that he still thinks like a nine year old.

This loss drops Everton to 17th after Wolves’ win over Wigan yesterday, and just a point separates them from Bolton in 18th. It’s been a horrible run that has seen Everton earn just three points from six difficult fixtures – and worryingly they were six fixtures that accounted for twelve points last season.

Despite Everton playing fairly well and deserving at least a point, it’s hard to begrudge Newcastle the win or their impressive start to the season. Alan Pardew doesn’t have a particularly big squad to work with and was given only a fraction of the fees received for Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Jose Enrique to find adequate replacements. He also had to deal with his pre-season preparations being disrupted by Joey Barton, who has become even more of a pain in the arse since learning how to read.

The injury which forced Yohan Cabaye off in the first-half on Saturday left Pardew without three of his four first choice midfielders, but instead of dropping his arse and packing the centre of the park with defenders he opted to give two young a lads a go in their natural positions. Obviously there’s no way this Newcastle team will qualify for the Champions League, but their positive approach will ensure they do alright.

Everton’s next six matches include home games against Wolves, Stoke, Norwich and Swansea. These, along with the trip to Bolton, are games that Everton really need to win if they’re to spend the second half of the season thinking about Europe rather than worrying about a possible relegation scrap.

Hopefully there’ll be money to spend on a striker in January, but until then Moyes needs to freshen things up and show a bit more confidence in his players. Drenthe has made a positive impact, but even with him in the side it’s hard to see where goals are going to come from when Saha, who isn’t suited to playing as a lone striker anyway, is supported by a midfield that always contains two holding midfielders (one of which is quite often a natural defender in Neville or Heitinga) and a full-back on the wing.

The defence has never really recovered from Lescott’s departure and is only getting worse (their one clean sheet this season came in a game where the opposition missed two penalties), so It seems like as good a time as any to switch Coleman to right-back. The only way he’s going to develop as a defender is through playing games, and even if he does leave gaps by bombing forward there will be two defensive midfielders waiting to cover.

I sympathise with Moyes, who has watched his team fall apart in front of him over the past two years, but he still has a number of highly paid internationals to choose from, and rarely passes up an opportunity to defend the board in the press. He’s never going to be a gung-ho manager, and that’s fair enough, but his tactics are becoming unnecessarily negative to the point where his team are now incredibly predictable and easy to defend against.

A couple of wins will change everything, but it’s easier said than done.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Newcastle vs. Everton Preview

Everton’s difficult run of fixtures continues on Saturday with a trip to St. James’ Park to face Alan Pardew’s unbeaten Newcastle United.

Newcastle have been sat in the Champions League places a little too long for the pundits’ liking, so there’s been a lot of talk lately about how the wheels will inevitably fall off and their season will amount to nothing. While they’ll almost certainly finish outside the top four, Newcastle have drawn with Arsenal and Tottenham and picked up an impressive away win at Stoke so far in their opening ten Premier League games, so they’re not a team to be taken lightly.

Still, regardless of Newcastle’s form Everton need to start getting points on the board after what’s been an incredibly challenging a run of games. A deserved win at Fulham (I know Bobby Zamora’s miss was ridiculous, but Everton murdered them in the first half) was followed by a home defeat to Manchester United that made it four losses out of five in the league for David Moyes and leaves Everton languishing in 16th.

The performance against United was decent enough in terms of keeping possession and limiting the champions’ chances, but, as is almost always the case, Everton never really looked like scoring.

Louis Saha drops far too deep to be effective as a lone striker, and even when he does play on the shoulder the midfield’s pacifist approach to killer passes does him no favours. If his brilliant goals against Fulham and Chelsea were a reminder of his talent, his efforts against United showed why bringing in a new striker still has to be Moyes’ number one priority.

Another problem is that none of the midfielders look to get beyond Saha when he drops into ‘the hole’ or pulls out wide. I don’t know if it’s because they’re told to hold their positions, lack the energy to get back if the move breaks down, or just can’t be arsed making a run for him when they know he’ll probably try some mad shot anyway. Whatever the reason, Everton need to change things up in attack.

If Tim Cahill is passed fit then he’ll probably play, but I’d sooner see Apostolos Vellios given the job of leading the line and opening up space for Saha and the wide players to attack. Vellios wasn’t great when he started at Fulham but he’s shown he can score and deserves a run in the team, especially since we’ve seen time and time again that Cahill and Saha don’t complement each other at all.

Sylvain Distin will likely come straight back in at centre-half at the expense of John Heitinga if he’s over the injury that kept him out last week. Heitinga’s presence in defence reduces the number of times possession is needlessly conceded by aimlessly punting the ball forward, but he dived in for the penalty against Chelsea in the League Cup and lost Hernandez for United’s goal last week, so he’ll almost certainly be the one to make way. If Distin doesn’t make it then it could be a long afternoon for Heitinga and Phil Jagielka, because one-time Everton target Demba Ba is looking unstoppable for Newcastle at the moment.

Marouane Fellaini’s suspension is a blow, but the return of Royston Drenthe after his own one game ban will hopefully compensate. The Dutchman has his faults, but there’s no denying that his raw pace and willingness to take risks adds an extra dimension to what can often be a painfully predictable Everton attack.

One reason I’m feeling fairly optimistic about Everton’s chances of getting a result is the vastly improved form of Jack Rodwell. The England U-21 international, who is apparently on the verge of a call up to the full squad, has quietly carved out a niche for himself as the anchor in Everton’s midfield and put in a string of stellar performances since receiving plaudits for his man-marking job on David Silva a few weeks ago.

Rodwell will need to have another big game if Everton are to pick up three points at St. James’ for the second successive season, because Yohan Cabaye is capable of dictating games from midfield when teams give him space to play. Controlling the centre of the park will be made easier if the excellent Cheik Tiote fails to recover from a knee injury, but either way Cabaye will need to be watched.

Despite Newcastle’s superb start to the season it’s still hard not to fancy even the most toothless strikeforce against a defence led by Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor. Coloccini loves to dive in like an idiot and Taylor is a clumsy oaf, but exposing them will require getting players into their penalty area, and that’s something Everton struggle to do even at Goodison.

I’d like to see Moyes resist the temptation to replace Fellaini with Phil Neville and instead move Leon Osman inside to partner Rodwell. I can’t see it though.

Probable team: (4-5-1) Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Coleman, Rodwell, Neville, Drenthe, Osman; Saha

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Chelsea 3 - 1 Everton

It’s fair to say that this is quite a depressing time to follow Everton.

After grinding out a 2-0 defeat at Man City, David Moyes looked like he’d actually sent his team out to win the game against Liverpool a week later, only for Jamie Carragher’s assistant Martin Atkinson to kill Everton’s chances just 20 minutes in by sending off Jack Rodwell for a tackle so brutal that it appeared to break Luis Suarez’s ankle from three yards away.

Thanks to Suarez’s Wolverine-like recovery powers he was able to continue, and gave the kind of performance that makes you wonder why such a good footballer feels the need to cheat whenever possible. Andy Carroll opened the scoring in the second half, despite being a complete donkey, and Suarez made it two with a neat finish after capitalising on slapstick defending by Sylvain Distin and Leighton Baines.

An international break meant that Moyes had to wait two weeks to try and get his team back to winning ways in their next fixture away at Chelsea, but despite ESPN talking up Everton’s run of five draws in league games at Stamford Bridge it never really felt like even a point was on the cards.

The FA graciously agreed to rescind Rodwell’s red card from the derby – though they curiously saw no reason to punish Atkinson for his woeful handling of an incident that he was right on top of, or Suarez for acting like he’d stood on a landmine – so Moyes was able to select the same team that started quite brightly two weeks earlier.

Everton again got off to a promising start, with Leon Osman and Louis Saha combining to create a chance for the Frenchman to cut in from the left wing and fire a shot that Petr Cech could only gather at the second attempt. Unfortunately Saha was so buoyed by his half-decent effort that he decided not to pass to any of his teammates for the rest of the game, instead opting to try and get a shot off whenever he had the ball, regardless of how many opposition defenders were stood in front of him.

Seeing Saha revert to type encouraged the rest of the Everton players to follow suit; Phil Jagielka started playing beautifully weighted passes to the head of John Terry, Tony Hibbert kicked himself up the arse while trying to launch the ball into space, and Marouane Fellaini got himself a pointless booking.

Chelsea opened the scoring on 30 minutes when the superb Juan Mata picked out Ashley Cole with a deft chipped pass which the England left-back guided back across goal for Daniel Sturridge to head beyond Tim Howard. What Distin and Baines were looking at while all this was going on is anyone’s guess.

Everton responded well to the goal and managed to create another opportunity for Saha to ignore several grey shirts in good positions and kick the ball straight at Terry. As half-time approached it looked as though Everton were well placed to regroup during the break and look for an equaliser in the second half - that was until Seamus Coleman gave a stupid free kick away and Howard and Distin decided to stand by and let Terry head in a second from Frank Lampard’s cross.

To their credit, Everton came out flying at the restart, with Osman unlucky not to pull a goal back when his guided shot struck the outside of Cech’s left post. It was short-lived though, and within a few minutes Chelsea were pressing Everton back and limiting their attacks to hopeless punts by Jagielka and Hibbert.

Moyes made his usual 60 minute substitution, bringing on Royston Drenthe for the struggling Coleman, but before the Dutchman had a chance to touch the ball Chelsea had made it 3-0. Mata combined well with Didier Drogba (who looks a shadow of the player he was two years ago), before centring the ball across goal for Ramires to stab in. It was poor defending again from Everton, with Hibbert and Baines particularly culpable.

Fan morale hit a new low when Phil Neville came on to replace the ineffectual Tim Cahill with about 20 minutes left, which enabled Everton to switch to the tried and trusted method of knocking it long to Fellaini when things aren’t going well. After 10 minutes of this Moyes decided it might be worth putting someone in the box that moves, so Saha was replaced by Apostolos Vellios, who only went and scored with his first touch.

There was to be no great comeback though. The final minutes of the game passed without incident, aside from a brief shouting match between Neville and Lampard after a late challenge from Captain Charisma.

A third defeat on the spin leaves Everton sitting 15th in the Premier League, just a point off the bottom-three with a game in hand. It’s alright though, because they’ve signed James McFadden on a free transfer.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Man City vs. Everton Preview

Everton have stretched their unbeaten streak to five games in all competitions in the last week, with a 3-1 league win over Wigan Athletic on Saturday being followed by a 2-1 (after extra-time) League Cup victory against West Bromwich Albion. I didn’t see either game in full, so can’t comment too much, but judging by Graeme Sharp’s exasperated commentary neither performance was particularly impressive.

The departures of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Jermaine Beckford and James Vaughan, along with the injuries suffered by Victor Anichebe and Louis Saha (who could have seen that coming?), have led to a return of the famous David Moyes 4-6-0, with Tim Cahill and Leon Osman the furthest players forward.

Argentinean striker Denis Stracqualursi did make a first start against West Brom, while Apostolos Vellios scored the deciding goal in the win over Wigan and has looked a threat from the bench, but given Moyes’ tendency to leap on any excuse to pick the most negative team imaginable it seems very unlikely that either will start away at Manchester City on Saturday.

City, who began the season looking like the Harlem Globetrotters, dropped their first points last weekend when they threw away a two-goal lead to draw at Fulham. The result could be seen to suggest that some of the mental frailties that have hampered their ability to make a meaningful title challenge in either of the last two years may still exist, but chances are they just got caught late after playing a difficult Champions League tie a few days earlier.

Edin Dzeko will likely lead an attack boasting absurdly talented players such as Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and the fantastic David Silva, and with City having managed 17 goals in their opening five Premier League games it’s hard to imagine Everton’s shaky defence keeping them out. The fact Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and Adam Johnson are struggling to get on the pitch says everything about the level of firepower available to Roberto Mancini.

If there is cause for optimism it comes in the form of Mancini’s burning desire to unleash his inner arl arse and set up his team with caution. Chances are that he’ll sacrifice one of his usual front four in favour of using James Milner to double up on Leighton Baines, and he may also be tempted to add an extra holding player to a midfield that has been dominated by Marouane Fellaini in the past.

Last season Everton put on a smash and grab clinic akin to those Rafael Benitez used to pull off in the Champions League with depressing regularity during his time at Liverpool, and it will take something similar just to get a draw this time around. Fulham showed that City can still be broken down by a high-tempo, pressuring approach, but the key to making it work at the Etihad Stadium will be figuring when to sit and when to push.

A lot will be depend on whether Royston Drenthe and Seamus Coleman can use their pace to get in behind City’s defence and offer consistent outlets when Everton are weathering the storms that will inevitably come. If Cahill leads the line then he’s going to have to be intelligent with how he uses his energy for as long as it takes before Moyes sends on Vellios or Stracqualursi. He won’t get much joy out of Lescott or Kompany if he tries to brawl with them over every high ball, but while they’re both comfortable in possession neither are anything special with their distribution and can be pressured into mistakes – I know Everton can’t say much with the Super Smash (it out of play) Bros. at centre half, but the point still stands.

I don’t know how much Everton’s recent record against City counts for when they continue to improve while Moyes’ team declines each year, but despite their transformation into a very, very good side they still have some weaknesses. Neither Gael Clichy nor Aleksandar Kolarov are as good defensively as they are going forward, and Micah Richards’ positioning makes Sylvain Distin look like a prime Jaap Stam. Everyone knows Gareth Barry is awful, but as Yaya Toure seems to do the running of two men I’m not sure if it’ll make a difference.

Moyes has gotten the better of Mancini three times on the spin, but to be honest it’s hard to see Everton getting a result here without a large slice of luck to go with a perfect game plan. My biggest worry is Aguero, as he’s the sort of skilful, low centre of gravity player that Phil Jagielka seems to struggle badly with.

Judging by recent performances it’s hard to predict anything other than a loss against a team with a far superior set of players, but Everton put in their strongest performances against the better teams last season, so you never know.

I reckon the Everton line up will be: Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Coleman, Fellaini, Osman, Rodwell, Drenthe; Cahill.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Everton 2-2 Aston Villa

A late goal from Gabriel Agbonlahor cost Everton what would have been a well-deserved first home league win of the season as Aston Villa somehow escaped from Goodison Park with a 2-2 draw.

The fun started early with what has been reported as anything between 650-1500 disgruntled Evertonians making a peaceful demonstration against the board in the form of a short march from behind Everton One to the directors’ entrance at the ground. It was hardly 1917 St. Petersburg but a start at least – the highlight definitely being a clown walking around with what I can only assume was the world’s first and only John Heitinga cake.

Despite suggestions that protesting would create a negative feeling that would seep into the stadium and kill the players, it ended up being one of the better atmospheres for a standard fixture in quite a while, especially considering the attendance was the lowest for a Saturday 3pm kick-off in nine years.

Everton started brightly and dominated possession throughout the first half against a Villa team whose plan of attack seemed to be built around Emile Heskey winning headers against Leighton Baines, which in fairness worked for Arsenal when they did the same thing using Nicklas Bendtner two years ago. Unfortunately for Alex McLeish his master plan was thwarted when the shock of playing a decent through-pass caused Heskey to pull a hamstring.

Seamus Coleman returned to the starting line up after an injury lay-off and looked great against ‘The Man of a Thousand Broken Ankles’ Steven Warnock. Coleman’s pace and aggressive running is a breath of fresh air in a team that is generally slow and methodical going forward, and though he was out on his feet towards the end, his was one of the day’s most encouraging performances.

Leon Osman put the finishing touch on a nice move to open the scoring on 19 minutes. It looked for a second like Tim Cahill had cost Osman a decent shooting opportunity when he took the ball off his team mate’s toes on the edge of the box, but a clever reverse pass from the Australian allowed Osman to guide an excellent left-footed finish beyond the reach of Shay Given.

Soon after the opener came a quite surreal moment as Bill Kenwright’s face was shown on the big screen for about 15 seconds. The sight of Kenwright, who gave a bizarre sob story interview in the Daily Mail that was put out on the morning of the match, was initially met with a chorus of boos, only for a fair chunk of the ground to counter with a sustained round of applause.

It was so surprising that the cameras went back again to make sure it had really happened, and lo and behold, the man who ring-fenced £30m for the Kings Dock and provided us with an effectively free, world-class stadium received a warm clap. Score one for the Everton PR machine.

After the break everyone was reminded that there was a football match going on when Stilian Petrov curled a cracking effort past Tim Howard on 63 minutes for 1-1. The crowd and players responded immediately though, and within six minutes Everton’s lead was restored after the awful Fabian Delph made a ridiculous challenge on Phil Jagielka and Baines converted the resulting penalty.

Everton should have also had a penalty in the first half when Baines was blatantly tripped by substitute Barry Bannan, only for the referee to somehow fail to spot a foul that happened no more than five yards in front of him. It was a decision that David Moyes and his team would go on to rue after Agbonlahor’s 83rd minute equaliser stole a point for the visitors.

Agbonlahor fed to ball out wide to Mark Albrighton and made his way into the box where he took up a position in the middle of Jagielka, Howard and Sylvain Distin. Tony Hibbert, in because Phil Neville was presumably too upset by the despicable actions of the Blue Union and not in the right from of mind to play, made no attempt at closing him down and his cross was able to pick out Agbonlahor, who took advantage of Distin’s complete failure to react and headed Villa’s second.

It was an overall strong performance that deserved three points, but I suppose Everton were due some bad karma after mugging Blackburn at Ewood Park last time out. It was surprising to hear Moyes and Cahill criticising the fans in their post-match interviews (something you never see from Alex Ferguson or any of the United players), and all indications are that Everton are looking to marginalise the Blue Union by turning the rest of the fan base against them.

Hopefully the board will name a price sooner rather than later and we can find out exactly how hard they’re trying to sell the club.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Everton vs. Aston Villa preview

Everton will look to record their first league victory over Aston Villa since March 2006 when Alex McLeish brings his unbeaten team to Goodison Park on Saturday.

Darren Bent, who scored twice in this fixture last season, is Villa’s only major injury worry, and McLeish will give him right up until the last moment to prove his fitness. Hopefully Bent won’t make it, as his clever movement is tailor-made to take advantage of Sylvain Distin’s complete lack of positional sense.

If Bent plays he’ll likely be partnered by long-standing figure of ridicule Emile Heskey, whose stupid DJ celebration represented the nadir of several Walter Smith/early David Moyes derby day farces. How Heskey is still playing Premier League football is beyond me; he’s a big, fat pudding and Martin O’Neill should have been sacked on the spot for spending £6m on him when Villa were 3rd or 4th in the table.

Despite losing Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, who were their two best players last season, Villa still seem to have a decent side. Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given would have been great signings for most teams, while Alan Hutton and Jermaine Jenas (who is Jack Rodwell’s Dorian Gray) are improvements on the departed Luke Young and Nigel Reo-Coker.

Villa set up to play on the counter, which is worrying because Everton struggle with teams that are willing to sit tight and wait for an opportunity to break. The usual result is Mike Arteta, Marouane Fellaini and Rodwell passing sideways between themselves just over the halfway line until either Leighton Baines does something brilliant or Phil Neville does something shit. However, now that Arteta has moved to Arsenal there’s also the third option of John Heitinga playing a pointless diagonal pass and then posing like he’s Ronald Koeman whilst waiting for applause.

With Jermaine Beckford and Yakubu Aiyegbeni sold and Victor Anichebe injured, the onus is on Louis Saha, who is almost always either carrying a knock or just plain unfit, and Tim Cahill to provide the firepower for the foreseeable future. Denis Stracqualursi, top-scorer in Argentina last season, has come in on loan but it seems unlikely that David Moyes will throw him straight into the starting XI. If Saha doesn’t play it’ll probably end up being Cahill and Fellaini up front.

Moyes’ biggest concern will be the fitness of Baines, who is easily Everton’s best player these days, as the left-back was sent home from England duty early with a tweaked hamstring. The neither-footed Phil Neville can switch to the left easily enough and provide reasonable cover defensively, but it’s difficult to see Everton creating many chances for what is an increasingly static forward line without Baines.

Everton’s best chance of winning this is by dominating the centre of midfield. Fellaini is much better than anything Villa have, and Ross Barkley, who’ll likely start wide, has the ability to commit opposition players and make things happen. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov is also available after suspension, but it’ll probably take a few more first team injuries before the Russian non-entity finds himself starting.

Royston Drenthe, a deadline day loan signing from Real Madrid, will probably start on the bench and may play some part. He was brilliant for Holland at the U-21 Euro tournament a few years ago and looked good at Hercules last season until a pay dispute led to him going on strike. Fortunately Everton haven’t yet reached the point where they can’t afford to pay players’ wages, so hopefully he’ll get his head down and show why he was such a highly-touted prospect at Feyenoord.

It’ll be interesting to see how many people turn out for the Blue Union’s peaceful protest march, which begins behind the megastore at 2pm. Though many Evertonians remain apathetic to what goes on behind the scenes, an increasing number are coming around to the idea that the current board isn’t going to jump unless it’s pushed.

Seven successive transfer windows without purchasing a first team player isn’t good enough when the team is slipping to a point where it’s no longer capable of even reaching the Europa League, never mind threatening the top four. Despite the conveniently timed news that Kenwright will be meeting three potential buyers next week, I find it hard to believe that someone who came across as a deluded lunatic in his meeting with the Blue Union reps is the right man to make the sale.

Saturday is looking like a pretty big day all round for the club. It’s difficult to make a prediction without knowing whether Baines or Bent will feature, so I’ll just say that if Tony Hibbert, Neville and Heitinga all start then Everton are in trouble.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Cracker's Guide to Benicassim

If you’re looking to prove yourself as a true connoisseur of music by attending a festival abroad, you’ve probably considered Benicassim. The relatively short flight and warm weather make it an obvious choice, allowing you to combine a relaxing holiday in the sun with all the debauched fun of a music festival.

For those with the foresight to book a hotel in Benicassim Town I’m sure that was case, but for the proles slumming it in the camp sites things weren’t quite so rosy.

There are many mistakes to be made when attending a festival, especially if it’s in a foreign country and you’re skin is approaching translucent, so in the interest of making this blog entry as helpful as possible my friends and I decided to make plenty of them.

People that live for holidays can get into the spirit early by making the first fuck up several months in advance. I suggest waiting until all flights to Valencia Airport (the nearest to Benicassim) are fully booked and face value festival tickets have sold out before making any attempt at buying either. For maximum effect, be sure to have the necessary money in your account from the moment tickets go on sale and absolutely no reason not to buy them before they’re all gone.

Now you’re ready for your first taste of Benicassim extortion. Websites such as Seat Wave and Viagogo will helpfully break down all the different ways in which they’re ripping you off before presenting you with a sum total that is usually about £80 more expensive than originally advertised. It’s worth noting that they do at least offer insurance against counterfeit tickets, so if you enjoy living dangerously you may prefer to opt for an eBay seller with dubious credentials.

After purchasing your ticket you’ll be warned that in order to exchange it for a wristband at the festival you will need to show your passport, a copy of the passport of the crook who bought the ticket and sold it on to you, and a letter of authorisation from said crook, confirming you as the victim of the transaction. This turned out not to be true, as the people manning the ticket exchange desk didn’t seem in the least bit bothered as long as your barcode scanned and you were carrying some sort of maroon rectangle.

Should you fly to Alicante you will be greeted at the airport by a fat-headed Spaniard in a taxi. This man is a liar. He will tell you it costs 20 Euros to get to Alicante train station by taxi (it doesn’t) and that from there it’s 60 Euros for a train to Castellon (he’ll swear blind there is no station at Benicassim – there is) and something like 30 Euros to reach the festival from there. The good news is that for a pre-arranged price of just 60 Euros each he will take you directly to Benicassim, leave you at the wrong camp and insist the price was actually 70 Euros.

In Fat Head’s defence he does ask if you’d like to put one of your CDs on, but as no one carries CDs anymore you’re likely to spend the two hour journey listening to snide ‘90s techno dance on Spanish radio.

We arrived at FIB Camp at around 6pm on the Tuesday and it was already quite busy. There are little shanty town-looking areas which provide tents with a decent level of shade, but as the wait was at least five minutes long it made much more sense to instead pitch up under an emaciated tree in a dust bowl across the road.

The sheer folly of not only failing to book a hotel room but also being too impatient to wait for a spec in the shade doesn’t hit home until the following morning, when the sun beats you out of your tent with a relentless barrage of hot and humid abuse that persists for around twelve hours. The rocky floor is impossible to sit or even walk bare foot on, so if you’re flash like me you’ll take an old towel to sleep on. The truly extravagant amongst you may even spring for a mat or lilo if you can withstand the added heat they bring.

Once you properly wake up the desperation sets in. The tent is like a sauna but the sun and floor are trying to kill you. If your solution to this problem is to immediately get up, go into town and buy chairs, umbrellas and mats to walk around on you’re probably going to be ok. If your solution is to sit in silence for a few hours and wait for the problem to resolve itself then you’re probably one of my friends.

I suppose one benefit of doing everything in a lazy, piecemeal fashion is that you appreciate little (tiny, even) luxuries a lot more. First you get a chair and find yourself saying things like: “I had a really good sit this afternoon.” And you’ll mean it too. Next up are umbrellas, which should really be the first thing you buy, but as having a good sit is better than even the best stand or lean it’s seldom the case. After a day of hiding from the solar enemy beneath 18 Euros worth of shade, during which time you’ll develop a real hatred for the Spanish and other olive-skinned races who walk freely about the camp, you’ll hopefully build the confidence to buy some wooden mats and use them to walk around the tree from Evil Dead that your umbrella is tied to.

It seemed the best option for pasty sun-dodgers was to jump out of the tent straight after waking up, get to the showers (which are unisex, so if you and your mates start doing impressions of Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm avoid shouting: “I’d break that ass in half, Larry” – girls will think you’re weird) and then find a bar in town with adequate shade and a toilet that doesn’t resemble the one from the bookies in Trainspotting. Stay there until it’s safe.

Night time is alright. Having a sleep between the sun going down and the better bands starting makes a difference, but it isn’t easy if there’s a gang of knobhead Spanish girls there who have a noisy summit right next to your tent whenever you want to get your head down. It also helps if you don’t have a trio of blerts from Devon who watch The Apprentice trying to make you the first customers of their ridiculous festival-based business ventures in between pestering your friends for ciggies.

You’ll need to be slick if you’re to sneak any ale into the performance area, as the Spanish security guards are a lot more willing to touch people up than their English counterparts. It’s quite easy to throw things over the side of the fence to your mate if you do it without looking obvious, so use your phone to let the thrower know the coast is clear (this has the added benefit of letting you feel like you’re on 24). Also, remember: a mis-thrown plastic bottle is a funny story; a mis-thrown glass bottle is manslaughter.

To finish, here are a few more bits of advice that I’m not skilled enough to slip into to the above:

- Don’t buy chicken nuggets from the big tent in the camp. They cost 6 Euros and are served with flavourless Benson’s crisps (no lie).

- Don’t wait until late at night to take a shower. It gets windy and you’ll tire yourself out chasing cold, weak streams of water about.

- Don’t get talking to a Spanish slap-head who goes around pubs telling people to remember the name Enzo Zidane and likening himself to Hitler, even if he does offer to buy you a BMW, Mercedes or Mini depending on your preference.

- Don’t forget that each drink ticket costs 2.5 Euros, or else you’ll end up thinking that a fiver for a Coke and a bottle or water is a good deal.

- Don’t let yourself get excited when you hear Everton have matched Aston Villa’s bid for Charles N’Zogbia, or whoever the club are pretending to be interested in when you’re there.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Everton v Sunderland, UFC 127 tomorrow

Everton host Sunderland tomorrow, looking to build on the momentum gained by knocking Chelsea out of the FA Cup last Saturday.

The league is still tight enough for a win to move Everton’s thoughts from a relegation fight to a last-gasp chase for Europe, but given our record against teams we should really beat at Goodison this season it wouldn’t be surprising if we slipped up again here.

Sunderland are struggling with injuries all over the park, with Michael Turner, Lee Cattermole, Danny Welbeck and Frazier Campbell all sidelined. Cattermole being out is particularly good news, as he’s exactly the kind of high-tempo nutter that Everton’s talented but fragile midfield has struggled with this season (think Karl Henry and Cheik Tiote).

Everton have a good record against Sunderland and there’s really no excuse for us not to win this game. They’ve only got one fit senior striker in Asamoah Gyan, and while he’s very good, Jagiekla and Distin should have enough between them to keep him quiet.

Sulley Muntari, who is on loan from Inter, and Stephane Sessegnon will be ones to keep an eye on. Muntari was quality during his spell at Portsmouth and Sessegnon looks a decent flair player from what little I’ve seen of him so far (it’s always nice to see a Football Manager superstar looking the part in real life).

Jack Rodwell and Louis Saha are Everton’s two most notable absentees. While we’re on the subject of Rodwell, what exactly has he done to merit interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United? Surely the sight of Jack Wilshere dominating Barcelona’s midfield in a high-profile Champions League tie shows that Rodwell, who has barely strung two quality performances together, isn’t ready for the big stage just yet.

As with every Everton game, I’m hoping that our opponents come at us from the offset and leave space open at the back for Baines and Coleman to attack. I don’t know if I can take another 90 minutes of a team sitting tight and letting Everton get ten yards over the half-way line, where we inevitably run out of ideas and start making stupid mistakes.

For all his limitations, Jermaine Beckford has to start. His ability to make intelligent runs that drag opposition defenders out of position may be his only real attribute, but that’s still more thing than the useless Victor Anichebe offers.

The key to victory for Everton will be Mikel Arteta. He needs to show belief in Fellaini’s ability to protect the defence and perform the simple sideways passing that our no.10 has limited himself to this season. Arteta’s last two performances showed signs that he may be on the verge of recapturing his form of last season, and we’ll need him to drive forward and commit players in search of the killer pass that the rest of our team sadly lacks.

Also, it’s UFC 127 from Sydney, Australia tomorrow. I’d love to predict a BJ Penn knock out win over John Fitch, but chances are that Fitch will pin Penn against the fence and tire him out en route to a decision. That’s the obvious pick here, but I’m still going to praying for a Penn stoppage.


Monday, 6 December 2010

Chelsea 1 - 1 Everton

Everton made it four consecutive score draws on the road with a well-deserved 1-1 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. David Moyes’ team showed impressive resolve and composure to come back from a goal behind after Nicolas Anelka did his best to get Tim Howard sent off by running into the American goalkeeper and leaving the referee with no other option than to award a penalty. The whole incident could have been easily avoided had Phil Neville not played a truly ridiculous back pass that Anelka easily read and intercepted.

Luckily the ref, whose name I forget, sort of acknowledged that Anelka purposely ran into Howard and decided not to produce a red card. Didier Drogba, who is still looking very subdued after his recovery from malaria, smashed the resulting spot kick beyond Howard for 1-0. At this point Neville endeavoured to make up for his error by demonstrating his full repertoire of clapping and pointing.

Marouane Fellaini and Jack Rodwell managed to dominate the midfield to such a degree that Chelsea were unable to get a grip of the game and add to their advantage. Chelsea don’t move as seamlessly between midfield and attack without Frank Lampard pulling the strings, and as the second-half developed Everton looked by far the most dangerous team.

As always it was Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines who provided the craft and guile in the final third, and it was a through pass from Pienaar that led to the game’s most controversial incident. The South African played a clever ball behind the Chelsea defence for Tim Cahill to run onto, and after avoiding a classic John Terry attempt at dragging down, Cahill slid fairly for a ball with goalkeeper Petr Cech. Despite pulling out at the last second, Cahill managed to graze Cech with his studs and cause a small cut over the Czech’s eyebrow and accidentally pressing his ‘off’ switch.

Chelsea seem to think that because Cech got his head stoved in by Steven Hunt four years ago that no one is allowed to go near him now, so predictably Terry acted like a knobhead and got in Cahill’s face. The obligatory scuffle ensued, with lots of pushing and postulating but no actual violence, while the Chelsea medical staff set about rebooting the big goalkeeper. After seven minutes of frantically pressing ctrl, alt and delete they managed to get Cech back on his feet and avoided having to bring on one of their comedy reserves.

Everton continued to push forward and finally grabbed the equaliser on 86 minutes. Baines again showed his quality by picking the ball up on the half-way line, accelerating past four Chelsea players and swinging a beautiful cross into the box. Cahill and substitute Jermaine Beckford split Terry, and Cahill headed the ball across the Chelsea captain for Beckford to nod beyond the flailing Cech.

There was seven minutes of injury time in which both teams were positive but neither really created any more chances. Both sides could claim to have dominated a half, but Everton wouldn’t have been flattered by three points.

Strange days

A quick look at Everton’s results over the last two months should be enough to tell you why I just haven’t been able to bring myself to write anything about them. Four good points from tough away games at Fulham and Birmingham were followed by a hugely satisfying 2-0 win over probably the worst Liverpool team in living memory. Everton then drew at Tottenham, beat Stoke at home, and got a few draws to go with disappointing home losses against Arsenal and West Brom.

Getting beat 4-1 at Goodison by West Bromwich Albion was probably the lowest moment of what has been an up and down season, where the downs have so far outnumbered the ups by some distance. Relegation has never really seemed a realistic fear, but after that game even Europa League qualification appeared just as unlikely. Everton were garbage all over the park and I began to wonder if everything had simply gone stale.

We’ve had virtually the same players, using the same system and tactics, for three years now without winning anything or getting into the Champions League. There’s no doubt that Everton’s pathetic excuse for owners need to be improved upon if the team are to ever challenge at the high end of the table, but with Kenwright and Friends refusing to so much as name an asking price for the cub it doesn’t look like that’ll be happening anytime soon.

The board’s inability to raise funds means that it’s sell to buy for the Everton manager, which is something that David Moyes struggles with. A large chunk of the money from Joleon Lescott’s transfer to Manchester City was wasted on Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and John Heitinga, neither of whom have offered anything at all this season, and we’re about to lose Steven Pienaar (who is the club’s best player in my opinion) for either a meagre fee in January or absolutely nothing at the end of the season.

I feel as though this current side peaked with the FA Cup final in 2009, and worry about whether or not Moyes has it in him to be ruthless and offload players to facilitate bringing in a right-sided midfielder and a centre forward – two positions where we are so badly lacking. Apparently Joseph Yobo has impressed during his loan spell at Fenerbahce and is set to make a permanent move for around £3.5m, which could go towards getting in a decent replacement for Pienaar such as Niko Kranjcar, but we’ll still need in excess of £10m to get the striker needed to consistently hit 15-20 Premier League goals.

Something must have gone on with Yakubu Aiyegbeni for him to be pulled from the starting line-up just when he was starting to hit form. Louis Saha is dreadful, and even though he scored yesterday, Jermaine Beckford is shite. The fact he is willing to run around a bit and move opposition defenders around instantly makes him a better option than Saha, but there’s just no way that this team is going to improve with League One's answer to Andy Cole as the main striker.

There’s no way Moyes will even consider a clear out in January, but he really needs to think about getting rid of a few underachievers in order to raise some money for new signings. I wouldn’t be surprised if come July Heitinga, Yobo, Pienaar, Yakubu and Bilyaletdinov have all found new clubs, and it’s going to be a big test for Moyes to find adequate replacements and move the team forward with only the money he’ll get for whoever leaves available to him.

His tactics are also an issue. Everton set up well away from home, with yesterday’s encouraging 1-1 draw at Chelsea being our fourth consecutive score draw away from home, but at Goodison we're just too negative and predictable. Any team with a bit of pace and organisation can expect to take points from Goodison, as was demonstrated by West Brom last week.

After the game finished I found myself genuinely thinking that it was time for Moyes to go. I can accept that he is a cautious manager, but the overwhelming negativity of his starting XI, along with his baffling substitutions, had me strongly believing that change was needed.

Why pick Tony Hibbert (who is never a Premier League footballer) at right-back if you’re going to play Heitinga (a centre-half) in midfield? If Heitinga isn’t mobile enough to cover an attacking full-back like Seamus Coleman then he clearly shouldn’t be given a holding midfield role. And on the subject of Heitinga, why did it take weeks and weeks of poor performances before he was finally dropped to the bench?
It’s not like Moyes doesn’t have options. He could have brought in a £10m international midfielder like Bilyaletdinov and moved Pienaar inside, or given a chance to Jack Rodwell, who is supposed to be one of English football’s biggest talents.

Not having Heitinga or the horribly out of form Mikel Arteta in the middle of the park made such a big difference against Chelsea. Marouane Fellaini and Rodwell were athletic enough to match Chelsea’s midfield and comfortable enough in possession for us not to miss Arteta passing the ball sideways over and over again.

At least Arteta had the decency to get himself suspended for three games by stamping on some West Brom players’ ankle towards the end of last weekend’s debacle. His form pre-injury and during the second half of last season had me believing he’d finally found the consistency that his career has always sadly lacked, but his performances so far this season suggest otherwise.

Arteta is one of the players who seem a bit too comfortable at Everton. He, along with Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka, Phil Neville and Tim Cahill are all a bit too sure of their places in the team and too friendly with Moyes. In fairness to Cahill, he’s one of the only players to give everything every week this season, but the rest of them have been able to perform very poorly safe in the knowledge that there’s no way they’ll find themselves dropped. Jagielka did have a good game at Chelsea, but at home his horrendous distribution is a massive hindrance.

Next week is Wigan at home and Everton have to win convincingly. Wigan are the sort of team who can only really play if the opposition let them, which is exactly what Everton have been doing at Goodison lately. Moyes needs to get his team playing a high line (the centre-backs are very fast but poor in possession, which makes having them pushed up seem like a no-brainer anyway) and pressing high up the pitch at a much quicker tempo.

I’m confident that if Moyes sticks with Rodwell and Fellaini in midfield then Everton can really give Wigan a hiding. If we camp fifty yards away from their goal and pass sideways, with Saha standing still next to their centre-halves, they’ll grow in confidence and the likes of N’Zogbia and Rodallega will cause us problems.

Everton showed enough in the second half against Chelsea to suggest that this season can still be turned around, but it needs to happen fast. Rodwell and Fellaini were impressive in midfield and Leighton Baines was brilliant. Him and Pienaar down the left combine to create almost every chance Everton have, and his run past four Chelsea players to cross for the equaliser on Saturday was outstanding.

There’s no denying that Everton have been very slow, predictable and easy to play against for a while now, but the beauty of this Premier League season is that everyone is taking points off each other, and even though we’ve played nearly half a season of terrible football, there’s still time to mount a charge for Europe.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Bottom of the league

I almost totally gave up writing about Everton after the Newcastle and Brentford debacles, but the performance in Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Fulham provided a tiny glimmer of hope that we might be about to hit a bit of form.

The 3-3 draw with Manchester United at Goodison Park turned out to be a false dawn. Everton were largely battered in that game anyway, with David Moyes going a bit mad and picking Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill up front, but given the fight shown by the players to come back from 3-1 down and score twice in the dying minutes it was hard not to feel at least a little bit optimistic ahead of the home game against Newcastle United.

Despite Yakubu coming off the bench to good effect against Man United it was Jermaine Beckford who was chosen to lead the line against last season’s Championship winners. With Cahill injured it was left to Fellaini to support the former Leeds striker, who continues to look woefully out of his depth in the Premier League, and unsurprisingly Everton never really looked like scoring.

Hatem Ben Arfa settled with game with a well-taken goal on the stroke of half-time. The France international cut inside from the left-wing, asked phoney enforcer John Heitinga to move out of the way, and smacked a cracking effort past Tim Howard. Cue Geordie bedlam.

You can add Ben Arfa’s name to those of Alex Hleb, Martin Petrov, Hamit Altintop and (at a stretch) Jermaine Pennant on the list of natural wide players who were available either on loan or a free transfer during the summer, but whom Everton showed no interest in.

If you thought things looked bleak after Newcastle then you were probably ready to bounce your season ticket off Moyes’ head in the wake of the League Cup tie away at Brentford. Everton sent out a strong team against a side struggling near the bottom of League One, so there were really no excuses when after failing to hold onto a lead or break them down a second time Everton were dumped out of the competition on penalties.

The fact that Alex Ferguson didn’t bother showing up to his side’s 5-2 win at Scunthorpe shows what little regard the League Cup is held in, but it remains Everton’s most realistic means of ending what will soon be a 16 year trophy drought. Winning a domestic cup is probably Everton’s best hope of getting back into Europe at this point as well.

Moyes was probably relieved that his team’s next game would come away from home at Fulham, as it’s hard to imagine the Goodison crowd showing much patience with Everton’s new brand of football; which essentially involves sitting very deep, passing the ball across the back for thirty seconds and then running out of ideas.

Injuries to perennial starters Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert gave Moyes an opportunity to try something different at Craven Cottage. Phil Neville came in at right back with Seamus Coleman ahead of him, Fellaini dropped back into his favoured holding midfield role alongside Mikel Arteta, and Cahill returned to partner comedy figure Yakubu Aiyegbeni in attack.

Although Yakubu appears to have completely lost his ability to accelerate he remains by far Everton’s best all round striker. He’s the only one with the intelligence to drag opposition defenders out of position and create space for the midfield to attack, and despite his sitter at the end he showed enough to suggest he might be getting back to something like his old self.

Everton looked far more balanced at Fulham than in any other game so far this season. Coleman’s pace and direct running on the right provided the kind of outlet we’ve been looking for since Landon Donovan’s departure, while Arteta and Fellaini were able to exert more influence on the game without Heitinga getting in their way.

It’ll be interesting to see what Moyes decides to do with Heitinga. Given how poor a pairing Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin have been it must be tempting for Moyes to drop one of them in favour of the Dutchman. Jagielka and Distin are both out and out stoppers with distribution that is limited at best, whereas Heitinga is extremely comfortable in possession and has the ability to bring the ball out of defence and pick a forward pass.

The draw with Fulham leaves Everton bottom of the league after West Ham’s somewhat surprising home win over Tottenham. It’s best not to get carried away with league positions at this point, but if Moyes really does have designs on qualifying for Europe then Everton need to start picking up points immediately.

Barring any injuries Moyes will almost certainly start with the same team away at Birmingham on Saturday. Alex McLeish’s side haven’t lost at home in over a year and it seems unlikely that Everton’s static, predictable attack will have enough to break down such an organised outfit, but I can’t help but sort of fancy us in this one.

We should have won last weekend and, regardless of their fine record at St. Andrews, we should be looking to beat Birmingham as well. As much as I was expecting to see Fulham grab a late winner, with Mark Hughes running up and down the touchline wearing a Joleon Lescott mask and flicking V-signs at Moyes, Everton had the possession and late chances to feel disappointed at having to settle for a share of the points.

0-1, Cahill with a late header.

Starting XI for Saturday: (4-4-1-1) Howard, Neville, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Coleman, Arteta, Fellaini, Pienaar; Cahill, Yakubu

Thursday, 9 September 2010

UFC 118: Edgar vs. Penn II

Frankie ‘The Answer’ Edgar laid to rest any doubts over who the best lightweight in the UFC is, as the New Jersey wrestler dominated BJ Penn over five one-sided rounds to defend his 155lbs title for the first time.

Many, myself included, thought that Penn did enough to win the first fight and would set the record straight once and for all at UFC 118. Much of the former champion’s pre-fight rhetoric centred around claiming that Edgar could do no better than his performance in Abu Dhabi, while insisting that he would be suitably motivated to up his game and blow ‘The Answer’ away at the second attempt.

It wasn’t to be though. Penn looked very much the same slow, plodding fighter that he did in the first bout, whereas Edgar, while employing similar tactics to those that beat Penn first time around, appeared faster, stronger and more confident than ever before.

Edgar showed fantastic conditioning and energy, bouncing around the cage and landing fast, accurate combinations at will on his ponderous foe. Penn appears to have fallen into the same trap as Quinton Jackson of simply trying to stand and box with his opponents, and it wasn’t until late on in the bout that he mixed up his offence and took Edgar to the mat. Even then though, Edgar showed tremendous technique and power as he reversed position on one of MMA’s most decorated jiu-jitsu players.

It’s customary after any BJ Penn defeat to look for reasons as to how such a talented fighter could perform so poorly. Apparently Penn has broken away from the Maranovich brothers, who led his training camps prior to dominating victories over Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian, with some speculating that his performances against Edgar suffered as a result. There has also been criticism levelled at Penn’s corner during the fight, particularly from UFC commentator Joe Rogan, for the way in which they simply coddled him in between rounds rather than giving any real instruction.

All that aside, you have to give full credit to Frankie Edgar. The lightweight champion displayed a level of speed and stamina that 'The Prodigy' just couldn’t live with, and at this point it’d be remiss to say anything else other than that he simply has Penn’s number.

UFC 118’s co-main event saw the MMA debut of multi-division boxing champion James ‘Lights-out’ Toney. After chasing UFC president Dana White up and down the country, Toney was finally granted his opportunity to prove himself in a bout with former two-weight champion Randy Couture. It lasted all of four minutes, as Couture took Toney down with laughable ease and eventually worked his way into an arm triangle. It appeared as if Toney didn’t even know how to tap out, causing referee Mario Yamasaki to intervene on his behalf.

Elsewhere on the card Gray Maynard cemented himself as the no.1 contender for Edgar’s lightweight title with a decision victory over Kenny Florian. Maynard used his impressive wrestling to take Florian to the mat and keep him there, and while his safety-first performance didn’t go down too well with Florian’s native Boston crowd, it was enough to secure him an overdue title shot against a man he has already beaten once.

Nate Diaz was another to stake a claim for himself as a top contender. The younger Diaz brother showed crisp boxing and excellent jiu-jitsu as he choked out Marcus Davis in round three of their bloody ‘fight of the night’ confrontation.

A clash of heads early on opened up a nasty cut above Davis’ right eye and impaired ‘The Irish Hand Grenade’s’ vision throughout. The fight was eventually stopped after Diaz caught Davis with a guillotine choke in the third round; Davis refused to tap and referee Yves Lavigne eventually called a halt after seeing that he had lost consciousness.

The win was Diaz’s second at 170lbs but, when interviewed after the fight, the Stockton native expressed an interest in returning to lightweight to challenge Gray Maynard, a man who he defeated on season five of The Ultimate Fighter.

Former middleweight title contender Demian Maia took on fellow Brazilian Mario Miranda to round off the main card. The clash of jiu-jitsu black belts followed much the same pattern for three rounds, with Maia dragging Miranda to the ground and hunting for submissions. Miranda, a student of the Nogueira brothers, showed impressive submission defence to escape several perilous positions and probably did enough to earn himself another UFC bout, despite dropping a unanimous decision.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Summer's almost gone

Plenty has gone on in the three weeks or so since I last updated.

Everton laboured to a disappointing 1-1 home draw in the face of Mick McCarthy’s Wolves and their ultra-violence. This was followed by a hugely frustrating 1-0 defeat away at Aston Villa and, finally, the closure of another near-silent transfer window for the Blues.

After the incredible form shown during the second half of last season there was a feeling amongst Evertonians that if David Moyes could somehow get through the summer without losing any first team players, and perhaps even find some way of kidnapping Landon Donovan, we’d have a real chance at challenging for fourth place.

So far things haven’t quite panned out as expected. Everton have developed into one of the better ball-retaining sides in the division – unthinkable during the days of the Lee Carsley/Phil Neville midfield axis of evil – but for all our neat sideways passing there has been a distinct lack of a final product.

Donovan’s impact last season showed the difference a pacey outlet can make, and it was hoped that even if Everton couldn’t swindle LA Galaxy out of the USA winger we would at least bring in someone similar. It didn’t happen.

It’d be remiss to write Everton off at this stage, not least because we’ve been garbage for the opening months of the last two seasons before turning things around, but I do worry about where the goals are going to come from.

Jermaine Beckford remains unproven at the highest level, though his early performances suggest he needs more touches than Premier League defences allow. Louis Saha is reaching parody status, with his wacky medieval medical treatment being followed by going off injured ten minutes after coming on as a substitute for France, while Yakubu Aiyegbeni is yet to make a competitive appearance due to some dubious calf injury.

Tim Cahill is always good for around ten goals a season, and Mikel Arteta, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Leon Osman, Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar are all capable of getting forward and hitting the net, but such has been the lack of movement from up front that opposition defenders aren’t being dragged out position and no gaps are opening up for the midfield to attack.

Moyes has never really been the wheeler-dealer type, but he knew from the start of the summer that there was no money to spend and should have set about moving some of his fringe players on to raise funds. Apparently James Vaughan is about to join Crystal Palace on loan and Joseph Yobo has moved to Fenerbahce on a temporary basis as well. No doubt the board will be pleased with not having to pay these players’ wages while they’re away, but surely it would have been better to try and sell anyone the manager deems surplus early on and use the money to improve elsewhere.

Nobody expected Everton to spend big money without selling first, but it was pretty galling to see Alex Hleb, who really is a top-quality footballer, moving to Birmingham City on loan for the season. Hleb would be such a huge step up from Osman, Bilyaletdinov or Jack Rodwell on the right of midfield.

Now that the window is shut all we can do is hope that our two remaining Nigerians re-emerge and make a significant impact. Yakubu played in Jamie Carragher’s big day out on Saturday and has hopefully gone some way to shedding the excess weight he was rumoured to be carrying after his post-World Cup break. The smiley goal plunderer is better suited to Moyes’ system than any other forward at the club, and his intelligent (albeit slow) movement and underrated link-up game could go a long way towards improving the team’s performance in the final third.

Victor Anichebe, meanwhile, appears to be Moyes’ preferred choice on the right of midfield. He’s played there to good effect over the past two seasons but seems rather injury prone (obviously the Van Daminator he suffered at the hands of Kevin Nolan doesn’t count) and questions still remain over his attitude. The fact we’re pinning so much hope on two of the more unreliable players at the club is quite concerning, but there’s basically no other option.

Next up for the struggling Toffees is a home fixture against Manchester United. It’s nice to go into this game without worrying about Alex Ferguson’s trophy hoarders dominating possession in midfield, but that aside it’s hard to see Everton having the cutting edge or breakaway pace to hurt United, whereas their slick forward line will likely cause all sorts of problems for the Blues’ shaky defence.

I’ll post a full preview for Saturday’s game and reaction from UFC 118 separately.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Blackburn 1-0 Everton, Big Nog out of UFC 119

After all the pre-season talk of being potential dark-horses this year, Everton began the new Premier League season with a disappointing defeat against Blackburn Rovers.

Ewood Park has become a difficult place to pick up points since ‘Big’ (which is just a nice way of saying fat) Sam Allardyce rolled into town with his barbaric brand of percentage football. Blackburn only lost something like three home games last season, but Everton were so poor that it makes it difficult to simply put this one down to a one-off stumble in the face of difficult opposition.

Much of the praise that is heaped on David Moyes and his players is well-deserved. We have a good team who work hard for each other and, more often than not, play with some style. However, such are the gaping holes in certain areas of the pitch that I can’t help but feel as though a lot of Evertonians think we’re a lot better than we actually are.

Many blues have been boldly predicting Champions League qualification, pointing to the superb run Everton went on during the second-half of last season as evidence that Moyes finally has a squad good enough to compete at the top-end of the table. Factor in the manager finally having the majority of his players available to him after various long-term injuries, as well as there being no added Europa League fixtures to deal with, and it’s easy to see why people are feeling so optimistic.

Unfortunately though, things are rarely as easy as they first appear in football. Going on a great run of form when your season is effectively dead and buried anyway and there’s no real pressure or expectation from the fans or media is all well and good, but it means very little if you can’t repeat the feat when there are prizes to be won. Losing away from home on the opening day of the season is hardly an indication that a team is doomed to fail, but there were a number of issues evident on Saturday that need to be addressed.

Everton’s biggest problem lies in the final third, where a total lack of movement from the forwards prevents space being opened up for the midfield to attack. Louis Saha and Tim Cahill are useful players in their own ways, but as a pair they seem more interested in contesting individual battles with centre-halves than linking with the midfield or running the channels to drag defenders out of position.

It remains to be seen whether or not Jermaine Beckford is going to cut it in the Premier League or if Yakubu even has a future at Everton, but at this point it looks as though Moyes is going to have to find someone better to lead the line. Money is clearly in short supply so the only option is to move on the likes of Yakubu and Joseph Yobo - two big earners who really shouldn’t be at the club if the manager doesn’t rate them as good enough for the bench.

Speaking of the bench, where was Seamus Coleman? The lad has excelled whenever given a chance in the first team and featured in every pre-season fixture. Considering Everton’s total lack of attacking pace, and the fact Johnny Heitinga was on the bench, it seems bizarre that Moyes felt the need to include Tony Hibbert among his substitutes at Coleman’s expense.

It’s fairly obvious that Everton can’t afford to buy Landon Donovan or any other winger of note to play on the right of midfield, which makes having Coleman over-lapping one of our many centre midfielders that get stuck out wide seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately Moyes appears to value shoe-horning class prefect Phil Neville into the side above all else.

The goal itself was a freak. As much as I don’t rate Tim ‘lead boots’ Howard it would be stupid to call his comical dropping of a standard catch anything other than a one-off that could have happened to anyone. The American doesn’t seem to let errors damage his confidence so hopefully this won’t lead to a run of poor form.

It’s difficult to say how big an impact Howard’s calamity goalkeeping had on the match. Kalinic’s goal certainly gave Allardyce the invitation he craves to have his team sit back and smash the ball as hard and far as possible, but given how much Everton dominated possession there’s little excuse for not being able to carve out a couple of chances against limited opposition.

Moyes made the changes you’d expect when chasing a game: Beckford came on for the obligatory ten minutes of 4-4-2, Cahill moved to the right of midfield because taking him off is apparently incomprehensible, and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov was given fifteen minutes to try and score a screamer. Jack Rodwell also got on the pitch but didn’t have much time to make an impact.

Everton’s only real effort on goal came from a Phil Jagielka piledriver in the dying minutes, although Beckford did manage to drag a shot about twenty yards wide on the turn. Blackburn didn’t do much themselves but still looked the more likely to add to the scoring with on-loan forward Mame Biram Diouf looking particularly dangerous after replacing Kalinic.

A convincing performance is a must in Everton’s next game at home to Wolves on Saturday. Saha deserves to be dropped and Leon Osman has no business playing wide-right. It’ll be interesting to see whether Rodwell comes into the side at the expense of the blatantly unfit Marouane Fellaini (who was all over the place at times on Saturday), though it seems more likely that the only change will be Bilyaletdinov coming in for Osman.

In other news, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has pulled out of his UFC 119 main-event rematch with Frank Mir, citing long-standing hip and knee injuries which require surgery. Former Pride GP winner Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic has agreed to step in and face Mir in the card’s headline bout.

As a big Cro Cop fan who can’t stand Frank Mir I’m really hoping to see a vintage Filipovic performance, but even in his recent win over Pat Barry the Croatian Jack Bauer looked a shadow of the man who terrorised heavyweights in Japan. It’d be sweet to see Mir be the first to suffer a classic Cro Cop left high-kick knockout in a UFC ring though, even if it is pretty unlikely.