After a magnificent seventh, a couple of famous fifths and one fabulous fourth, this season Everton will finish in what Phil Neville has already dubbed an “empty eighth.” That is how the Blues’ captain was left feeling when the 0-0 draw with Stoke City was over, a result that confirmed Everton’s first absence from European football since the 2006/07 season.
Neville went further in his post match comments, describing Everton’s failure to reach continental action for next season as exactly that – a failure. The No 18 said: “It’s European football we want. Eighth place for me seems a bit of a failure for the squad we’ve got and the performances since Christmas.” The 33-year-old is right to say Everton’s displays since the festive period have been worthy of earning them a European place for next year, but the experienced utility player will also know the real damage was done before then. Arguably, it was done between February and April 2009, when first Mikel Arteta and then Phil Jagielka went down with long-term injuries, but even taking into account the loss of these two invaluable players, Everton’s pre-Christmas form was just not good enough. Much of this was down to David Moyes not being able to get a settled side together, with practically every player bar Tim Howard picking up some form of injury that kept him out for a few weeks at least, which, coupled with Sylvain Distin and John Heitinga being ineligible for the Europa League, meant regular reshuffles, but even when a strong team was selected the performances were often sub-par. As excellent as the unexpected victories over Chelsea and Manchester United were, they were effectively nullified by Everton failing to beat Stoke, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City in six attempts – seven, if the FA Cup clash with Alex McLeish’s Blues is counted.
What hamstrung Everton on Saturday was a problem they have been contending with all season – a lack of imagination when one of, and especially both, Arteta and/or Steven Pienaar are missing. Not having the South African winger is something Everton may have to get used to if his contract is not extended soon, and after he missed the trip to the Britannia Stadium with a slight ankle injury, the prognosis for a Pienaar-less future does not look good. Pienaar’s explosive turn of pace and his bewitching link-up with Leighton Baines give Everton an added dimension they would, and do, greatly miss without him. Replacing Pienaar would be one of the toughest transfer market tasks of Moyes’ Everton career, with more and more teams scouring the world for such rough diamonds. Both Pienaar and Arteta were originally brought to Goodison Park on loan and the chances of finding a third player of such high talent would appear slim. That said finding a player to follow Arteta, who arrived on Merseyside 18 months before Pienaar, seemed unlikely yet the resourceful Scot somehow did it. Moyes’ bargain bin moves have been amongst his best but replacing Pienaar, whether it be this summer or next, is going to take resources of the financial kind unless Moyes can pull off the ultimate three-card trick.
Pienaar could very well stay at Goodison for the next year and beyond – the words from his camp do indicate Everton is his desired home. As with every contract negotiation at this level, a delicate balance needs to be struck between rewarding Pienaar with a weekly pay packet he feels he deserves and not upsetting the wage structure at the club, leading to resentment from players who may feel underpaid if Pienaar receives a large raise. Selling the player in the summer, if a contract cannot be agreed before the World Cup, may be the best option in the long run to avoid a Joleon Lescott-style transfer saga next year. Pienaar would be a major loss, and would depart leaving feelings of a lack of fulfilment over what could have been achieved with the former Ajax man at the club, but if his wage demands are excessive there is little to gain from keeping a player destined to leave on a free transfer for the final year of his contract. This would not be a case of Everton being unable to keep hold of their top players. Rather, it would be a wise business decision, one done to safeguard the future of the club on and off the field.
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