Portugal, a dream holiday destination for thousands each year, instead conjures up depressing thoughts for anyone who has followed Everton this season.
In their two meetings with Benfica in the Europa League group stage, the Toffees were embarrassed, conceding seven goals without reply, but now a rejuvenated team can put those memories to bed as they take on Sporting Lisbon. An Everton side shorn of 11 regulars went to Lisbon to meet tonight’s opponent’s bitter rivals Benfica in late October. Even that sobering statistic barely excused the shambolic performance that followed, losing 5-0 in their first competitive game in the Iberian country, although how competitive it actually was is up for debate. Matters improved only slightly a few weeks later, when a more familiar Everton line-up was still comprehensively outplayed on the way to a 2-0 home defeat. The Everton team that contested those late autumn scraps with Benfica was a pale imitation of what those players are capable of, and it is only lately they have begun to show their true worth with any kind of regularity. Last week’s deserved win against Chelsea would, any other year, immediately go down as the Toffees’ best performance of the season, but this term it has competition from the trip to Arsenal in January or the 2-0 vanquishing of Manchester City, also last month.
A similar showing will be required tonight, despite Sporting’s own problematic season that has seen a change of manager and defensive woes similar to those Everton experienced a few months ago. They currently sit fourth in the 16 team Portuguese league, 21 points behind leaders Benfica having played a game less, but should still not be taken lightly. Sporting house one of Europe’s most talented midfielders in their ranks, captain Joao Moutinho, long a name at the top of David Moyes’ wish list. Everton had a bid of 11.7 million pounds turned down by the Lisbon club in July 2008, prior to Marouane Fellaini’s arrival on Merseyside. Moutinho, 23, is adept at controlling the play in much the same was as Fellaini has recently but lacks the physical presence of the Belgian, who remains missing due to the ankle injury sustained in the Merseyside Derby. Everton will definitely have to cope without the in-form John Heitinga, cup-tied following two appearances for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Philippe Senderos is available and could replace the Dutchman, provided the on-loan Arsenal player recovers from a back problem, while Joseph Yobo’s return from injury leaves Moyes with plenty of options at centre-back.
Even without Heitinga and Fellaini, Everton go into the game, which kicks off at the ludicrous time of 5.45pm, riding the crest of a wave. The victory over Chelsea was so impressive it nearly made up for the early-season disappointments Evertonians were forced to endure. Consistency has been Everton’s downfall this season, with key players starring one game and shrinking the next, and the squad being constantly eviscerated by injuries, there was not the depth to pick up the slack generated by key individuals suffering off days. The arrival of Landon Donovan helped greatly in that respect and the American has become a firm favourite in his brief time at Goodison Park. The on-loan winger has around a month remaining on his Everton contract but would be welcomed for a permanent stay in the summer with open arms, such is the ease with which he has settled in English football. Donovan has provided the attacking pace that was sorely lacking from Everton’s game, as well as using his goal scoring instincts to great effect, linking up well with Tim Cahill and Louis Saha to give Everton an added dimension in the penalty area. His excellent corner-kick delivery has also proved useful, while making a great impression on his teammates off the field too. He is eligible for the Europa League, and in a game the Blues need to win could provide valuable forward power.
A clean sheet is vital for Everton’s hopes of progression in the Europa League, but as we know, attack is the best form of defence. With Saha in admirable form in front of goal, supplying the enigmatic Frenchman is the Toffees’ best weapon to fire them past Sporting and to a date with either Atletico Madrid or Galatasary. The Europa League may be the second tier of European competition but the games are barely any easier – something Everton found out against Benfica. If they can survive that trouncing, Sporting should hold no fear.