Club Focus – Everton – The warm embrace of home

After consecutive away disappointments against Sporting Lisbon and Tottenham Hotspur, Everton return to Goodison Park on Sunday looking to get their season back on track with the visit of Hull City.

Phil Brown’s Tigers are exactly the kind of side Everton struggled against earlier this term when vital home points were dropped against Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Yorkshire outfit have become something of a reference point for Evertonians, with the November date between the two sides acting as the low water mark during a turbulent time on the blue half of Merseyside. Everton found themselves three goals down after 30 minutes, eventually recovering somewhat to pull two goals back but the initial shambles lives longer in the memory than the near-comeback or even the League Cup meeting between the clubs in September.

The Carling Cup fixture between Hull and Everton was a comfortable 4-0 away victory for David Moyes’ side but the goodwill generated by that trouncing was swiftly eradicated two months later, leaving the Toffees with something to prove against City after the mixed results in autumn and winter. Everton’s recent home league form has been excellent, however, and it is on the back of that the Blues’ European hopes rest. With just two defeats from their seven home games, against Arsenal and Liverpool respectively, the only other disheartening Premier League outcomes at Goodison have been the aforementioned ties with Stoke, Wolves and arguably, Birmingham City – although that 1-1 draw was in the middle of the second city side’s unbeaten streak.

Further drawn games with Aston Villa and Spurs came after Everton had been enduring a three-game losing stretch ahead of meeting the former and trailing by two goals against the latter. In the aftermath of both side’s Champions League push and Everton’s continued mediocrity, they did not appear to be the bad results they seemed at the time. With comfortable victories against Blackburn Rovers, Burnley and Sunderland, a tight win past Wigan Athletic and unexpected triumphs over Manchester United and Chelsea that will not be forgotten soon, Moyes’ men should face Brown’s boys with the swagger that deserted them on their recent travels.

Those excursions to Lisbon and London have threatened to derail the Blues season but Leighton Baines’ inclusion in the England squad has changed Evertonians’ focus, softening the blow of defeat with the cushion of pride in Baines’ promotion to the Three Lions’ left-back slot. A good performance from Baines at Wembley returned some of the pre-Europa League exit optimism that buoyed proceedings at Goodison and gave rise to feelings of satisfaction at one of their own finally being rewarded for his good work. Regular watchers of Baines know his form has been consistently solid for some time and his almost telepathic link with Steven Pienaar constantly delights the home crowd as much as it unsettles the visiting defence.

With Baines’ first appearance at Goodison since stepping into the Ashley Cole-shaped gap in England’s defence coming so soon, the little full-back is guaranteed an even louder reception than usual from the throng of committed bluenoses who will be present on Sunday. Nevertheless, there is a long history of Everton players making their way with England and soon ‘outgrowing’ life with the Blues – think Joleon Lescott and Wayne Rooney recently and Gary Lineker and Martin Keown in earlier instances. Fortunately, Everton are in a much better position today to offer not only Baines but also Jack Rodwell the standard of football they desire than they were 25, 15 or even five years ago. Lineker admittedly left for the glamour of Barcelona at a time when English clubs were banned from European competition, but that was also a time Everton were one of the top two teams in England.

There are many defining characteristics that go together to make a great team, but two of them are undoubtedly keeping hold of your best players and maintaining strong home form. In his two and a half years at Everton, Baines has progressed to become one of the Blues’ key protagonists while this season’s home form is amongst the best in the country – only three teams have lost fewer home games than Everton and they are the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, three of the top five and all vanquished when they travelled to this corner of Liverpool. Everton’s remaining five home dates – Hull, Bolton Wanderers, West Ham, Fulham and Portsmouth – are all winnable games. Take 15 points from them and tying down the likes of Baines will be simple.

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