Only Tim Cahill is a doubt for the Scot, a knee injury threatening to delay the 30-year-old’s start to the season by a week or two, and now, instead of bemoaning their team’s lack of luck with injuries, Everton fans are engaged in debates about just who will make up the first XI for the opening game of the season. Will Marouane Fellaini, only back in training last week, make his first league appearance since February or does Jack Rodwell partner Mikel Arteta in midfield? What about John Heitinga, missing for pre-season after his World Cup exertions with the Netherlands, to partner Phil Jagielka at centre-back? Who gets the right-wing berth, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Leon Osman or Victor Anichebe? That there are so many decisions facing Moyes means the 2010/11 campaign already promises to be much more straightforward than last year’s injury-blighted struggle.
There are a few positions that any Toffees observer can fill in without hesitation. Tim Howard will retain the gloves even in the face of competition from Jan Mucha and the pairing in the heart of the defence is sure to be Jagielka plus one. Leighton Baines will continue as Everton’s first-choice left-back, not because there is not another senior player of that position at the club but because he is one of the finest exponents of the role currently in England. A five-man midfield, with two sitting deep and three supporting the lone forward will be made up of Arteta, Cahill (when fit) and Steven Pienaar on the left wing and two others while Louis Saha’s 15 goals last season mean he continues to be Everton’s main striker. Just as the wealth of options available to Moyes is a positive for the coming months, this strong, consistent spine is too. With half a dozen or so players confident of their importance to the team but also certain they cannot rest on their laurels thanks to the depth around them, Everton have the building blocks of a successful season.
After last year’s calamitous opening, the 6-1 home drubbing at the hands of Arsenal, matters can only improve at Ewood Park on Saturday. The Everton that will take to the field in Lancashire tomorrow and the one humiliated 12 months ago may be made up of some of the same players, but everything about them is different. That Everton was unsettled, not just because of the prolonged saga of Joleon Lescott’s move to Manchester City, but also thanks to the team – and perhaps the manager – not yet able to adapt to the loss of Jagielka and Arteta. This Everton not only has those players back, but also a relatively-calm summer behind them. The only consternation surrounds Pienaar but even the South African’s contract dilemma is only a concern to a point, as Evertonians now believe, after seeing Lescott take City’s petrodollars and sink while Everton eventually rose, they can cope with the loss of almost any player. Should the dazzling Pienaar leave, either in this summer window or next, he will be missed around Goodison Park but not mourned. After eight years, Blues fans have total faith that Moyes can replace just about anyone, either with a bargain, Pienaar-style purchase or a more extravagant buy, in the mould of the exciting Bilyaletdinov.
Moyes, who ruled himself out of the race to succeed Martin O’Neill at Aston Villa this week, surely the least surprising announcement since ducks confirmed they do indeed like water, has often said winning a trophy at Everton is his ultimate aim. He has come close – an FA Cup Final, a League Cup semi-final, both times defeated by Chelsea – but with the squad now at his disposal, and the law of probability saying he will not see as many vital players struck down with long-term injuries this season, 2010/11 may be the 47-year-old’s best chance yet. A deep, fit squad, no European football to take up Thursday evenings and an ever-increasing bun-fight to finish fourth in the Premier League grabbing many other teams’ attentions leave the FA and League Cups as viable targets this season. Even so, Moyes will not forgo his league ambitions, starting at Blackburn tomorrow.