On the eve of FA Cup semi-final weekend and without a match to occupy their thoughts until Wednesday, Evertonian musings could be forgiven for drifting back 12 months to April 2009. The Blues and their loyal army of fans descended on Wembley for the first time in 14 years to face Manchester United at the same stage in what was arguably the Toffees’ biggest one-off game since beating the same opposition in the final of 1995.
Everton were of course victorious on that baking hot spring day – clinching what was, for a neutral watching at home, an interminably dull game – but for those in the stadium, especially the 40,000 or so Blues, the tie was a nail-bitingly tense affair even before the penalty shoot-out got underway. The United line-up that day was something of a mix and match affair, equally weighted between experienced internationals – including Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Ji-Sung Park, and Carlos Tevez – and talented youngsters – the da Silva twins, Darron Gibson, Danny Wellbeck and Federico Macheda. Everton had already been shorn of Mikel Arteta a few months earlier (and just a week later would lose Phil Jagielka – scorer of the winning penalty – for almost a year) but aside from the Spaniard, had a full-strength team available. United were in control for much of the game but could not break Everton down and despite Tim Cahill missing the first spot-kick, the Toffees progressed to the final, where they lost to Chelsea.
It is Aston Villa – Everton’s opponents next Wednesday – who have the dubious honour of meeting London’s Blues at Wembley this weekend, and Villa’s current league placing of seventh is the position Everton are still aiming to steal before the season’s end. A year ago, Everton were harbouring hopes of making the top five – which they eventually did, at the expense of the Villains – and went into the match at Wembley off the back of a 3-3 draw at Villa Park, having led 2-0 and 3-1 only to be pegged back each time. Four points separate the two teams this year and for Everton to have any hope of cracking the European places – which will stretch to seventh should the semi-final results work out a certain way – getting a result over Martin O’Neill’s side is a must. To that end, Everton will be hoping Villa endure an exhaustive clash with Chelsea on Saturday evening but the Midlanders have already shown impressive resolve this season to come back from a crushing defeat at the hands of the Stamford Bridge outfit. A second Villa trouncing could be the best possible result for Everton’s European wishes but freak results such as the 7-1 of a few weeks ago rarely strike twice.
Instead of relying on Chelsea to knock the stuffing out of Villa days before they host Everton, David Moyes will be forming his own plans for success next week. Villa do, however, possess one of the smaller squads in the league – a squad that has been pushed to the limit by two extended cup runs this season. Conversely, Everton boast a deep, well-rounded roster when everyone is fit – a rare luxury in 2009/10 – but the Toffees will still be welcome of the rest a free weekend provides. The extra few days could be enough to bring Arteta to full fitness after his groin strain, and the No.10 was greatly missed in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with West Ham. The guile of Arteta would have helped Everton both keep and use the ball better against the Hammers, but a lack of leadership in the centre of the park allowed Scott Parker free reign to dominate proceedings to devastating effect. Stiliyan Petrov – the Villa captain – will look to run the show in a similar manner, but restoring Arteta would rob Villa of the ball and nullify Petrov’s threat. The Bulgarian is often the key supply line to Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, but if Arteta can dominate possession Villa’s weapons will go unused.
Everton’s own FA Cup run was supremely enjoyable for the Blues’ fans and, perhaps, even the rest of the country, tired of seeing the usual big four cartel dominating the end of season showpiece – and Evertonians may be hoping Villa do for Chelsea on Saturday for that very reason. That being said, a Chelsea victory would be best for Everton’s European prospects, leaving the Merseysiders in a win-win situation this weekend.