WHAT a wonderful five days it has been for Everton, who followed their fantastic, long overdue victory at Manchester United with a thoroughly deserved point at Arsenal on Sunday, when they achieved a rare feat in the first 45 minutes by out-playing the league leaders at the possession game. The Blues had something like 60 per cent of the ball in that first half as they showed they can compete with the best at the modern game, i.e. midfield-dominated possession football, a la Barcelona. I do think that, at times, this style can be a bit slow, but there is no doubt the best way to defend well – and to attack – is by having the ball! If you’ve got it, the opposition can’t be hurting you. Once again, Roberto Martinez’s glittering array of midfield talent was gloriously in evidence, with Gareth Barry doing his usual great job in the holding role and lads like Ross Barkley and the increasingly-impressive Gerard Deulofeu looking more and more like a star of the present than one for the future.
I said that the Toffees were going into a big examination week and the conclusion is that they have passed the test with flying colours. What must really be encouraging for Martinez is that he has quickly arrived at a situation where there is genuine competition for places in the team. Guys like Johnny Heitinga and Tony Hibbert, who has been out injured, will have to fight hard to get into this side and, most intriguing of all, is the situation facing Leighton Baines when he is fit again, for the young Costa Rican Bryan Oviedo has excelled since stepping in at left-back. If Everton, who, with the one defeat are statistically the hardest team to beat in the Premier League, can get to Christmas on the edge of, or in, the top four, then the fans have every right to think anything is possible in the second half of the season. My two concerns are whether injuries to any one of Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin or the prolific Romelu Lukakau would leave Martinez short of adequate cover at centre-back and striker. Rumours persist that Dutchman Heitinga will want out in January because he needs regular football at this stage of his career. Hibbert could come in at centre-half, but it’s not his ideal role, and summer signing Alcaraz is still waiting for his chance. There is also youngster John Stones, signed from Barnsley, who is highly thought of at Goodison. Up front is a bigger worry, with Jelavic struggling to find the form that fired up the fans on his arrival the season before last and Kone, like Alcaraz a recruit from Martinez’s former club Wigan, still to compete after injury. So, let us hope that Lukaku, a superb athlete as well as a prolific goalscorer, stays fit to spearhead the best looking Everton team in nearly 20 years.
The win at Old Trafford served to emphasise the decline of title holders Manchester United, whose subsequent fifth defeat – again at home – to Newcastle has left David Moyes staring into the abyss in terms of a defending the Premier League Championship. United look hopelessly adrift now and their dramatic abdication has left us with a wide open title race and a gap at the top that Everton and Liverpool – they must be hoping skipper Steven Gerrard will not be out for too long with a hamstring problem – have gloriously filled. Arsenal are in poll position and playing vintage Arsene Wenger-inspired football, but the main reason, in my opinion, for their resurgence is not the record, £40m signing of midfield star Mesut Ozil, excellent though he has been, but the cementing of the Per Mertesacker-Laurent Koscielny partnership at centre-back. These two, who have had the frustrating habit of allowing ‘bad’ goals in the past, now look an assured, solid pairing and they are the base upon which creative players such as Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Arteta and Walcott have been able to build. Throw a Jose Mourinho-rejuvenated Chelsea, the big-spending, if misfiring, Tottenham and the talent-packed Manchester City into the mix and you have a new-look picture, one that promises a lot of twists and turns in the next five months. While the fans of these clubs have every reason to look ahead with optimism, United’s supporters may have to rely upon success in the cup competitions, maybe even the Champions League, if they are to supplement their current diet of bitter shandy with their regular tipple, champagne.
I WAS saddened to read about the match-fixing allegations, particularly those involving a player at one of my former clubs, Oldham, which have cast a dark shadow over the game. In my long career, the one and only time I ever experienced anything sinister in this respect was when, as Everton’s centre-forward, I played in a European tie at Panathanaikos, in Greece, when it was subsequently alleged that the Swiss referee was bribed. The current accusations regarding the fixing of yellow cards, throw-ins, corner-kicks etc show, alarmingly, how vulnerable the game is to such malpractice. Such occurrences, clearly, are easily “arranged.” We must all hope that the authorities get to the source of this cancer and cut it out.