Think back to August, when the season began with an embarrassing 6-1 thumping at the hands of Arsenal. That result was followed up by a comfortable 4-0 win in a Europa League qualifier that left many Blues fans blaming the Joleon Lescott saga for destabilising the team ahead of the visit of the Gunners. But next came a trip to newly-promoted Burnley and a lacklustre showing that resulted in a single goal defeat. The pattern would continue until mid-September, when a four goal trouncing of AEK Athens at Goodison Park heralded a five-game win streak where 16 goals were netted and just one conceded. A few battling draws followed before a depleted squad travelled to Portugal and received an almighty caning from Benfica, the Lisbon giants snuffing out Everton’s momentum with ease.
And so began a series of dreary outings highlighted only by hard-fought draws away to Chelsea and at home to Tottenham Hotspur. There seemed no escaping a relegation dogfight as Everton threatened to be sucked into the basement battle. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel, coming at the most unexpected of places. A trip to the Emirates Stadium does not seem the best place to deploy a new, aggressive all-action pressing game, but that is what Everton did and were rewarded with a point that should have been three. A similar style brought just desserts from Manchester City’s visit to Goodison and the hope generated by the Blues’ pre-Benfica run had returned, only to be dashed once again by elimination from the FA Cup.
That roughly brings us to today, at the start of a fixture-less weekend that provides Everton ample opportunity to take stock of the season so far and prepare for the challenges facing David Moyes’ team in the coming weeks and months. The surrender at Anfield is a fading memory, with thoughts of Wednesday’s breathtaking win overwhelming the lingering feelings of dismay brought on by last weekend’s submission. If Everton’s prior form this season is anything to go by, then expect a soulless display against Sporting Lisbon on Tuesday, but Moyes has plenty of time to formulate a plan ensuring that is not the case.
The difference between the Everton side that steamrollered Chelsea and the one that fell apart against Liverpool can be summed up in one word – courage. The players lacked the guts to take risks at Anfield, no one wanting to take responsibility and drag the team onwards, perhaps for fear of failure. There was no such shortage of bravado in midweek, however, and it began with the team sheet Moyes submitted. With Marouane Fellaini missing, there was much debate prior to kick off as to who would replace him in midfield – Phil Neville or Mikel Arteta?
Neville would have been a more restrained choice, in place to give the defence more coverage in the face of Chelsea’s onrushing midfield. But Moyes was bold and handed the magical Spaniard his first start in a year, at the same time backing Everton’s midfield to stand up to Carlo Ancelotti’s much-vaunted engine room. Arteta’s presence was a sign Everton had come to win the game and to do so in style, and although the No.10 could not see through 90 minutes, being replaced by Jack Rodwell moments before Louis Saha’s second goal, he made a valuable contribution thanks to his imperious vision and assured first touch, although it was Leon Osman who was the game’s outstanding performer in the middle of the park.
Everton have no reason to cower in front of more glamorous opposition and should not be afraid of taking the game to their opponents, whoever they might be, with an enviable mix of flair and strength. Too often this season Everton have forgotten their footballing principles and readily engaged in a battle where their superior ability is meaningless, lost in a sea of long balls and panicked clearances. Hopefully, overcoming Chelsea will give Everton belief in their own ability and confidence ahead of another season-defining week.