They say times are always darkest just before the dawn. For Everton, those times were before Christmas, and now, as winter slowly turns into spring, there is light at the end of the tunnel. After a shaky start to the new year, four points from two of the most difficult games on the calendar have given Evertonians renewed hope that this season will not peter out in a blaze of mediocrity.
It was November when the darkest days surrounded the club. First-half capitulation at Hull City was followed by a local-derby defeat at the hands of floundering Liverpool. Matters were so awful at Goodison Park that even a 2-0 defeat by their perennial rivals had loyal bluenoses scrabbling around for positives, pointing to an improved performance despite the result. The dying embers of Everton’s European hopes for 2009/10 were all but extinguished.
But it soon began to change – a battling victory in Athens against AEK was followed up by deserved draws at home to Tottenham Hotspur and away to Chelsea. Having dreaded every game, Toffees fans were now relishing the next fixture. It was December 20 when Birmingham City first came to Merseyside in the midst of an unbeaten run that continues to this day. A sign of the pre-Christmas improvement was seen when Everton supporters were left disappointed at only taking a point from the country’s form team.
A second meeting with Alex McLeish’s side in a matter of weeks provides Moyes with the perfect opportunity to cement the newfound optimism surrounding Goodison Park. There are many similarities between the two clubs preparing to do battle and both possessing a flame-haired Scottish manager is the most obvious. Birmingham’s success has been built on a high-tempo pressing game, with energetic forwards Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome leading the charge, unsettling defences and forcing under pressure opponents to swiftly clear their lines. Barcelona populated the strategy of defending from the front last season and Arsenal picked the baton up early this year to devastating effect, as Everton found on the opening day of the season in their 6-1 hammering. Against the Gunners, however, Everton took a page from Birmingham’s book, hounding their more elegant opponents into submission, while against Manchester City, they wrote a whole new chapter such was the ferocity on show.
It will take a similar level of performance to defeat the Blues tomorrow. With both sides aiming to blast the other into surrender, there is the danger they could cancel each other out. But the key difference between Everton and Birmingham is seen in their line-ups. While Birmingham deserve great credit for what they have achieved this term, they have done so working with an average squad at best. Theirs is a team filled with honest, hard-working professionals, but lacks the spark of a top-six team. James McFadden is often the one tasked with providing it, but any regular visitor to Goodison during the Scotland forward’s time in Liverpool will happily regale you with tales of his inconsistency.
Everton, conversely, have a team blessed with quality throughout. The mercurial Steven Pienaar was greatly missed in the autumn as Everton were robbed of their match-winners. But Pienaar is well and truly back, excelling in a centre-midfield role next to the giant Belgian Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini, imperious against Manchester City, was this week named Everton’s player of the month for December and despite fine performances from many players, including Pienaar, the 22-year-old was the only logical choice. The style he and Pienaar, amongst others, displayed against Roberto Mancini’s team are why Everton have the upper hand ahead of this latest battle of the Blues.
Last year’s FA Cup run was a wonderful experience for Evertonians but it came before the training ground turned into an episode of Casualty. For much of the competition, Moyes had far more to choose from and league form has been up and down this term. There are two schools of thought on cup runs. One says the momentum is good for league form, helping foster a winning habit. The other concerns injuries and squad size – areas Everton have had considerable problems with already. But Moyes cannot let any game slip in importance – his winning mentality will not allow it and neither will the Everton fans who enjoyed two trips to Wembley last year. Those visits to the capital are contagious and the fans have certainly caught the bug.