Last weekend’s draw with Birmingham City left Everton’s hopes of European football next season slim at best, but the Blues have more than pride to play for between now and May.
Not only will David Moyes’ side need to be at their best to capitalise on any implosion from one of the teams above them, but avoiding the kind of spring malaise that has dogged previous run-ins must be high on the agenda. Getting the best out of Yakubu will go a long way to doing just that. The Nigerian striker ruptured his Achilles’ tendon against Tottenham Hotspur in November 2008, the first of a string of serious injuries that hampered Everton’s plans last season. Since returning in September 2009, the former Portsmouth forward has struggled to re-find the form that made him one of the Premier League’s most dangerous attackers, managing four goals in 27 appearances without getting an extended run in the Toffees’ side. In Everton’s last home game, against Hull City, Yakubu had four golden opportunities to find the back of the next, including a penalty that was tamely rolled to the Tigers’ goalkeeper, a scuffed effort that struck the post and a good chance that ballooned over the bar from six yards out. A match-sharp Yakubu would likely have buried one or all of these, but sadly Yakubu has not looked match sharp all season.
His performance against Hull was still impressive – arguably his best since returning from injury – containing as it did some laudable hold-up play and excellent vision to find Mikel Arteta with a sweeping cross-field pass to create the first goal. The goal that deserted him at Goodison Park came at St. Andrews thanks to Steven Pienaar’s lobbed cross that the No 22 headed in from close range, but Yakubu’s performance was quieter than a week previous – no doubt down to the improved standard of opposition. With Louis Saha carry a hamstring injury, James Vaughn on loan at Leicester City and Victor Anichebe being used as a right-winger, Yakubu is Everton’s only available senior striker and more quiet performances that yield goals are needed than all-round displays where glorious opportunities are missed until Saha returns to the fold to provide depth to the Blues’ attacking options.
Of all the serious injuries that have afflicted Everton’s players in the last year or more, Yakubu’s was not only the first but also the one that held back the individual player the longest. Whereas Anichebe promptly displayed the devastating strength he had before, Phil Jagielka slotted into Everton’s defence as if he had never been away. Mikel Arteta took just a few games to show his much-missed brilliance, Yakubu returned sooner than each of his teammates but has taken the longest to even approach his pre-injury best. Part of that may be down to a striker’s instinct relying so much on regular football, but the player’s laid back nature has always given the impression of an aloof dilettante, happy to accept whatever circumstances he finds himself in and unwilling to work to improve his lot. That mattered little when he was banging in goals – 21 arrived in his first season on Merseyside – but when the strikes dry up the accusations fly.
Yakubu was never the fittest-looking of players, his barrel-chested physique giving the impression of an out-of-shape slacker – as if David Moyes would ever allow such a thing – but he possessed a dangerous burst of pace and Herculean strength before injury. No doubt, the will-to-win held by all successful professionals is present in the ex-Middlesbrough man but his languid style leaves him open to barracking from the stands. There have been times when Yakubu has deserved criticism from both the fans and his manager, returning late from Africa Cup of Nations duty in 2008 springs to mind. When times are troubled on the pitch he is an easy target because of that unhurried manner, the same calm approach that made him so deadly in front of goal before that fateful day at White Hart Lane.
With the Toffees’ chances of reaching continental competition next year only marginal, a strong end to the season is important to seal a top-half finish, something that looked out of reach last autumn and a decent achievement for a side that has endured much upheaval since August. The goal scoring form they found against Hull and Birmingham will be central to that task and all Evertonians will be hoping the charge can be led by Yakubu.
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