Blue heaven

These are exciting times in the Premier League and for the football-mad folk of Merseyside, in particular. I was at my old stomping ground, Goodison Park, last night to see Everton produce a scintillating first-half display that  enabled them to beat Newcastle, maintain their unbeaten start and join arch rivals Liverpool in the top four. And I’m not sure how many years ago the two Mersey giants shared that distinction! Long may it continue, for it is starting to look as though we might actually have a four, five or even six-club title challenge, which would be wonderful for the game in general. Manchester United’s failings and Manchester City’s inconsistency have given the nod to the likes of Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham, teams that, suddenly, have reason to believe that they can compete for the big prize.

I am impressed by the job Roberto Martinez has done at Everton, who are playing a brand of exciting, possession football that has ignited the passion of the loyal Goodison crowd. “Everton fans are born, not made” read a banner in the stand and you could feel the joy of the blue half of the city as their new-look team tore Newcastle apart in that thrilling, first 45 minutes, when they took a 3-0 lead. Two-goal centre-forward Romelu Lukaku produced more compelling evidence that he can be the loan signing of the season in the top flight, leaving us to wonder afresh why Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho allowed him to leave on a season-long loan deal. Right now, there is no doubt that Chelsea’s loss is Everton’s gain. Lukaku also made a goal for Ross Barkley, the young midfielder whose emergence this season is good news not only for Everton but for England, too. Everton now face their biggest challenge to date, at Manchester City on Saturday. They did well at The Etihad Stadium under David Moyes’s management, but the difference this time is that Martinez’s team will be playing the way City play. City’s first half display in the derby defeat of United was arguably the best 45 minutes played by any team so far, but Everton’s performance last night wasn’t far behind. So, it should prove to be an entertaining match and one that will show whether Everton can be genuine challengers for the big prizes.

United have an even more pressing date, at Shakhtar Donetsk tomorrow in the Champions League, as they bid to re-establish their credentials. Moyes is finding life tough as he tries to fill the shoes of the incomparable Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes has inherited a battle-hardened group of winners, but a group that is showing signs of wear and tear. United need a big result and a big performance following their stuttering start and, in particular, that stunning home defeat to West Brom last Saturday. By now, Moyes should have a good idea of what is his best team – and he needs to play it. Reports this week suggest he will have £50million available in the next transfer window, money that must be invested in at least one world class midfielder. There aren’t many of those who might be available, but  Wesley Sneider, Luka Modric and, again, Cesc Fabregas are men who could do the job done for so long for United by now-retired Paul Scholes, who is becoming more conspicuous by his absence with each passing week. I wonder if United regret not getting involved in the chase for Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s £40million deadline-day capture, for he is the type of player they need, a blender, a man who can link the back four and the midfield, who can start and finish moves. Ironically, Arsenal have the only Englishman capable of such a job, Jack Wilshere, so United are going to have to continue the “go foreign” trend to get their man – or men.

While Arsenal deservedly top the pile after a run of five straight victories and Tottenham increasingly look as though they will do very nicely, thankyou, without the special talent of £86million Gareth Bale, Chelsea are quickly assuming their previous persona under Mourinho…formidably functional if rarely inspirational. Mourinho has restored John Terry and Frank Lampard, his former stalwarts, and is already displaying his eccentric behaviour in front of the media. He walked out of his Champions League Press conference this week, claiming the reporters were always asking about players who were not in his team, as opposed to those who are. Perhaps it was his way of deliberately drawing attention to himself while taking it off his players. Or perhaps he was fearing follow up questions about why he has let Lukaku go to Everton! Mourinho has signed veteran star striker Samuel Eto’o but I suspect there may be similarities between him and another former World Player of the Year, George Weah, who I signed for Manchester City…namely great players who still know what to do but who have lost that vital split-second’s speed that enables them to do it. Who can say what the “special one” was up to. There is one thing for sure, he does tend to play a major part in his own dramas!




Barry booster for Everton

Gareth Barry has been given a new lease of life by Everton in a move that could be really good news for the blue half of Merseyside – and, possibly, bad for the blue half of Manchester. Everton played hardball with Manchester United to get the fee, £27million, they wanted for midfielder Marouane Fellaini and then moved swiftly to sign Barry from Manchester City on a one-year loan deal, as well as spending around £13million on Wigan’s James McCarthy. McCarthy is a good player, one of the men who made the difference in the terrific, comeback win at West Ham. But I believe the acquisition of Barry might prove a masterstroke by Goodison manager Roberto Martinez.

This is a 32-year-old who is by no means past his best, a talented, vastly-experienced midfielder, a veteran of 500 league games and a player who still has the quality to get back into the England team, for whom he has not played since May last year. Barry spent 12 years at Aston Villa and the past four at Manchester City, where he was a key figure in their Premier League title win two seasons ago. I am not going to suggest that he will propel Everton to similar glory, but I do think he will prove to be an important component as my former club tries to build on an impressive start that sees them as the only unbeaten team after five matches. Barry has paid the price for City’s multi-million pound splurge on talent in the transfer window, but Everton’s gain might be City’s loss for here is a terrific signing, an often underrated player who wins the ball, takes it and passes it. He reminds me of one of the unsung heroes of my Everton team in the mid-90′s, Joe Parkinson, who did a similar holding job. Barry is on a one-season loan deal but I won’t be surprised if Everton are not talking to him, and to City, long before next summer about making the move permanent.

I am impressed by Everton’s encouraging start and thrilled for my friend and Goodison chairman Bill Kenwright and for the fans. Fellaini’s departure to Old Trafford has been more than compensated for by the arrival of Barry and McCarthy and the fact that Leighton Baines did not accompany Fellaini to Manchester United is another massive plus. Baines, for me, confirmed his status as the best English left-back – and undoubtedly best English free-kick striker – with his two tremendous goals at West Ham, which secured a second successive win, following the morale-boosting victory against Chelsea. Baines has been unlucky to be in the shadow of the consistent Ashley Cole, of Chelsea, who has won more than 100 caps, and the Evertonian will probably face further stiff competition for England recognition from the fast-rising Luke Shaw, of Southampton. Be that as it may, Baines is the top man right now in my opinion. It has been suggested that he wanted to go to United and I can only hope, for Everton’s sake, that that possibility does not resurface in the January transfer window.

The fans must hope that Baines grows more and more enthusiastic about what I see as an Everton squad rich in talent and potential. Young Ross Barkley has quickly confirmed my pre-season expectations. He has such power, pace and the confidence to run at the back four, a tactic that won the free-kick from which Baines struck the first of his goals at Upton Park. Lukaku, surprisingly allowed to leave Chelsea on loan, looks a real handful of a centre-forward. When I first noted him a couple of years ago I was reminded of a youthful Didier Drogba and it is a mystery that Jose Mourinho is reluctant to give him his chance. Lukaku, who was a big hit while on loan at West Bromwich Albion last season, started the move that led to his headed goal in the 3-2 win against The Hammers, but what really impressed me, a former centre-forward myself, was how he gave the pass then peeled off and moved into the box and was in position when the ball was chipped in. Add to that his bravery as he rose for the header and was simultaneously hit on the head by the challenging defender, a crack which left Lukaku dazed and unaware that he had scored. It is also worth noting that the pacey, left-sided Costa Rican Bryan Oviedo made a big impact when he came off the bench and operated in front of Baines. Oviedo, signed 13 months ago, did not get many opportunities last season, but that may be about to change under Martinez. When you consider that players like midfielders Pienaar and  Gibson and striker Jelavic are waiting to make their mark, as an Evertonian you can look forward with optimism.