Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, scorer of Everton’s opening goal on Sunday, remains something of an enigma on Merseyside despite finding the net for the sixth time this season. The Russian, a £9m summer signing, has entered performances ranging from sublime to ridiculous since joining from Lokomotiv Moscow with consistency seemingly out of reach for the 25-year-old.
There are mitigating circumstances of course – Bilyaletdinov arrived in England not speaking the language and on the back of a gruelling Russian season, which runs from March to November, having already played 13 games for Lokomotiv – but showed a great deal of potential in his first Toffees start against AEK Athens in the Europa League. Bilyaletdinov created the first two goals of a 4-0 Everton victory with his wicked left foot – both from corners which first Joseph Yobo and then Sylvain Distin converted. Perhaps it was too much, too soon for Billy, as since that September evening, the midfielder has only rarely threatened to reach the same heights. Goals against Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa have been important strikes, but they have only been brief distractions from otherwise ropey showings.
The No.7 obviously possesses quality in abundance – few players are handed the captain’s armband at 22, as Bilyaletdinov was at Lokomotiv, if they are not of high calibre – but showing it week in, week out in the hustle of the Premier League is what is important. Bilyaletdinov’s mid-season form was not helped by Everton’s own sloppy run as injuries decimated the squad and ended David Moyes’ hopes of fielding a settled side – and results, together with Billy’s performances, suffered badly. Matters have improved for the club as a whole since the autumn nadir and while the Russian international has improved, he still looks a little off the pace compared to his slick, free-flowing teammates. The likes of Steven Pienaar, Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman have produced some delightful football at the heart of Everton’s resurgence but Bilyaletdinov has not reached their level.
Bilyaletdinov’s signing itself was a strange one – a left sided midfielder, his natural position is the same role that Pienaar has made his own in the Everton side. The South African’s link with Leighton Baines is arguably the Blues’ most potent weapon – indeed, both Everton’s goals against West Ham came down that side with Baines providing the cross for Yakubu’s late header. Disrupting that partnership was surely the last thing in Moyes’ mind, even if Pienaar is equally capable across midfield, but asking a new arrival to play in an unfamiliar position only added to Billy’s woes – his current station on the right wing is still somewhat alien. Bilyaletdinov may have been comfortable in the centre of midfield while in Russia – and his goal-scoring instincts may see him take that position for Everton eventually – but as it stands, Bilyaletdinov is too much of a head-down player to trust in the middle of the park, just as Arteta was in his early Goodison Park days.
Moyes – who signed Bilyaletdinov on the recommendation of former Chelsea and Russia boss Guus Hiddink – should certainly not cut his losses with his expensive purchase. Instead, the manager must take comfort in the experiences of another big-money midfield import – Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian – Everton’s record signing at £15m – had a similarly disjointed debut season in the famous royal blue, only to mature into one of the first name’s on the teamsheet after his settling in period. Last year, Fellaini attracted attention for his extravagant hair and clumsy tackling, as well as a useful tendency to find the net which masked some poor displays. Billy’s barnet is more modestly styled, his tackling less ungainly – although the goal-scoring knack is similar – but a similar resurgence next term would be greatly welcomed.
The key factor in helping Bilyaletdinov to be a success at Goodison may be the upcoming summer break. With Russia failing to qualify for the World Cup, Bilyaletdinov will spend the summer months enjoying his first time away from football since the Russian pre-season of November 2008 to March 2009. Billy can use his six weeks or so off to recharge his batteries, continue to settle into a new country and a new culture, and cement a place in Everton’s first XI.
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