Club Focus – Everton – Turning points

With the scores between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur level at 2-2 going into the final minute of injury time when the sides met in December, Jermain Defoe’s missed penalty proved to be a turning point in the Blues’ season. Had the England striker beaten Tim Howard from 12 yards, Everton could have been sucked into a relegation battle but instead are looking towards European qualification despite Thursday’s defeat at the hands of Sporting Lisbon.

The draw with Spurs came when the Toffees had won just three of their last 13 games. Since then, Everton’s form has been impressive, with memorable results against Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, as well as less-thrilling but equally important points taken from Sunderland home and away, Burnley and Wigan Athletic. That was before Everton capitulated in Lisbon for the second time this season, damaging the optimism beating the Premier League’s top two in consecutive games had generated.

A good result is needed on Sunday then, to ensure the blip against Sporting is just that. Going to the home of a side chasing the Champions League is never an easy prospect and coming away with a draw would be a more than acceptable outcome, and with John Heitinga and Sylvain Distin restored to the back line Everton will travel to north London on a surer footing than they did Portugal, where Phillipe Senderos looked unsteady in his second start in a blue shirt before departing with a leg injury. The partnership of Distin and Heitinga has been developing nicely and their combined absence left the Blues rocky against a skilful Sporting attack, although such was the pathetic nature of Everton’s performance there would have been little either man could have done if present anyway.

Re-finding what lay at the heart of recent successes will be key to getting back on track for Everton, as all of the qualities that won so many plaudits following the victory over United must have been left behind when the team travelled to Portugal. While they may have been confronted by a much-improved Sporting side, there was none of the high-tempo pressing, intelligent passing, dynamic movement or swift counter-attacking that brought the famous scalps of recent weeks. Instead, Everton were laboured in possession, uncertain in defence and badly lacking in ideas going forward, and a similar performance on Sunday will be as ruthlessly exploited by Harry Redknapp’s side as it was by Sporting Lisbon.

Another demoralising defeat would leave a grey cloud over Goodison Park after the hope created earlier this month. What looked to be a traumatic four weeks turned into what was, until Thursday, the most enjoyable time of the season to be an Everton fan, with the obvious exception of defeat by Liverpool. By the same token, March appears a relatively comfortable time for the Blues, with home games against Hull City and Bolton Wanderers and a trip to Wolverhampton for good measure. The most difficult game next month promises to be away at Birmingham City, but Alex McLeish’s Blues are not the fearsome prospect they were earlier this year and are owed a receipt by Everton for dumping them out of the FA Cup. Should Sunday’s game with Spurs end in disappointment there will be ample to opportunity to put matters right a week later against Phil Brown’s Tigers, while at the same time, if Everton get an unexpected triumph at White Hart Lane, the clash with the Yorkshire side is a great chance to preserve momentum.

That is still to come and the most pressing engagement is on Sunday. The Everton who went to Portugal was a poor imitation of what David Moyes has achieved at Goodison and cannot be allowed to show up again this season. Any talk of a late surge for the Champions League was always ambitious and never came from inside the club, but outside forces swayed by a handful of celebrated outings. Reaching the Europa League is a viable target but elimination from this year’s competition cannot be allowed to affect that goal, and with half a dozen or more teams sharing that ambition, any slip will be severely punished. The last meeting with Spurs was a watershed in Everton’s season and this one could be as well. A convincing performance could wash away the bitter taste left by Thursday’s result and ensure Everton have something to play for between now and May.

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