Club Focus – Everton – Claret and blue double next for Everton

Everton’s hopes of European football remain in the balance after the weekend’s results, when the Toffees’ goalless draw with Wolves and Aston Villa’s hammering at the hands of Chelsea kept the Blues’ chances of sneaking into seventh place alive. Three points against troubled West Ham next weekend – when Villa face a tough trip to Bolton Wanderers – would shift the emphasis on the two teams’ meeting in mid-April.

Looking past the visit of the London-based claret and blue outfit is not something David Moyes is likely to do, however. After a stunning victory over Manchester City, hopes were high for the trip to the Midlands but against a side with lower ambitions than Roberto Mancini’s men, Everton found their steam ran out when the early breakthrough did not arrive – a similar occurrence when Gianfranco Zola brings his players to Merseyside would surely kill off Everton’s continental dreams once and for all. West Ham – without a win in their last six games – will be galvanised by confirmation of Zola’s desire to stay at Upton Park and fight for survival and with the current crisis perhaps crystallising just how dire matters are in East London in the players’ minds, Everton will have to be on their game from the first whistle to heap more misery on next week’s guests.

Recent weeks at Goodison Park have seen some of West Ham’s relegation rivals leave empty-handed, with Hull City and Bolton both crumbling in the face of a blue-shirted onslaught. Hull’s capitulation was total and from the first minute, it really was a case of how many Everton would score. Bolton, on the other hand, provided a much sterner test and only came unstuck after being reduced to 10 men in the 70th minute. Wolves’ weekend performance was reminiscent of this Wanderers’ display, with committed defending stifling Everton’s slick football – Leon Osman missed a glorious chance in both games as well. West Ham will aim to be more Bolton than Hull when they head north but grinding out a result as Owen Coyle’s men nearly did – and Mick McCarthy’s charges managed on Saturday – does not seem to be in the Hammers’ nature, nor that of their manager. An open, free-flowing game would play into the Blues’ hands and greatly benefit Everton’s hopes of catching Villa.

Zola – who scored his last goal in English football against Everton, a magnificent lob for Chelsea in April 2003 – would do well to look to Moyes for advice on how to fashion a team capable of delightful attacking football while retaining a solid defensive base, for that is what Everton currently possess. The days of Joe Royle’s Dogs of War are well and truly over, as are the mind-numbing displays of Walter Smith’s tenure and even the gritty showings of Moyes’ early years. The presence of John Heitinga in front of the defence – and before him, Marouane Fellaini – has given Everton the strong spine all top teams need, but Heitinga’s Dutch schooling allows him to supplement the Blues’ forward surges with genuine quality – some of the No.5’s long passes are truly Beckham-esque. After looking like a jack of all trades and master of none in his early Everton days, Heitinga has become a key figure in the Toffees’ 2010 revival.

The players behind Heitinga deserve great credit too – Phil Neville, Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin and Leighton Baines form a back four of all the skills – attacking thrust from Baines, aerial strength from Jagielka and Distin and leadership from Neville, with Premier League ever-present Tim Howard between the posts. Three consecutive clean sheets have been relatively ignored in the face of some smooth attacking play as Everton reap the rewards of a settled back line. After the Joleon Lescott saga, Lucas Neil’s arrival and quick departure, Jagielka’s struggle to overcome injury and Distin taking time to adapt to life on Merseyside, Moyes finally has a regular unit to rely on and just as the attacking options have thrived lately, so has Everton’s last line. Howard can be a little slow off his line but with centre-backs the calibre of Distin and particularly Jagielka in front of him, the American is rarely tested.

Everton’s next few games will have a great impact on both ends of the table. Beating West Ham could condemn the Hammers to the drop while a win at Villa Park would blow the European race wide open. If the Toffees manage a claret and blue double, Howard, Heitinga and co will surely deserve much of the credit.

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