Everton host Newcastle United on Saturday at Goodison Park, continuing the hunt for a first Premier League win of the season against the Magpies. After the last-gasp 3-3 draw with Manchester United a week ago, David Moyes’ side may have momentum but failure to capitalise early against what will be a resolute Geordie outfit could see a familiar feeling of frustration descend over the Toffees’ faithful.
An inability to break down Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa or hold on to a lead against Wolverhampton Wanderers left the Blues looking for a spark last week against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Wayne Rooney-less team, and whether the late goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta were it were it remains to be seen, but for the good of Everton’s season they need to be. After the tie with Newcastle there is just one league game left in the month of September, away at Fulham, a place where Everton routinely struggle. This current winless streak cannot be allowed to continue into October – particularly when that month contains difficult trips to Birmingham City and Tottenham Hotspur and a home Merseyside derby against Liverpool.
This time 12 months ago Everton’s league record was only slightly better – played four, won one, a 2-1 victory over Wigan Athletic courtesy of a 90th minute Leighton Baines penalty. Bar a false start a week later – a 2-1 defeat away at Fulham – the left-back’s goal against his former club gave Everton a much needed boost and a seven match unbeaten run across all competitions followed. Indeed, nearly a year to the day of tomorrow’s game with Newcastle – 20th September 2009 – Everton strolled past Blackburn, winning 3-0, a result that flattered the defeated Rovers far more than the victors. Blackburn hit the bar with the game goalless but Everton soon rebounded and troubled Tim Howard’s goal was rarely troubled again. A Louis Saha double and a rare Joseph Yobo effort saw Everton home.
A repeat performance against Chris Hughton’s Newcastle is desperately needed and while a team containing Alan Smith and Scousers Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton is unlikely to roll over without a fight, the same would have been said about any team coached by Allardyce a year ago. Newcastle will look to use the physicality of Andy Carroll with Barton and Nolan supporting the England hopeful at every opportunity, and tracking the runners from midfield – something Everton singularly failed to do last week when Darren Fletcher equalised for United – could be the difference between another tense afternoon as Everton toil against a side lifted by a goal and a first clean sheet – and three points – of the season.
Prior to last week goals had been a problem for Everton – the League Cup thrashing of League One Huddersfield aside – while sloppy mistakes at the other end had made every game an uphill task – when your forward players are failing to click, conceding needless goals only makes matters worse. Howard’s trio of fantastic saves – from Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Luis Nani – should refocus the No 24’s mind but the series of errors against United by Sylvain Distin may be harder to recover from. On paper, the Frenchman makes a perfect foil for Phil Jagielka – left-footed to Jagielka’s right, explosively-paced to his counterpart’s more measured, anticipatory style – but such were the basic nature of the ex-Portsmouth defender’s blunders, his place in the side has come under question.
John Heitinga would be the man to replace Distin, and the Dutchman did excel at centre-back for a time last season, but Moyes is rarely a reactionary manager and as he demands loyalty from his players usually offers the same in kind, standing by a player despite a poor performance or two. Dropping Distin may be a popular move for the vocal portion of the crowd who called for the defender’s head on various local radio phone-ins but if the team has picked up some valuable momentum from the United draw – and confidence with it – shaking up the XI to such an extent could disrupt the squad before any benefit can be felt. While changes to the starting line-up will likely be made – Yakubu starting up front, for example – re-jigging a central partnership of Jagielka and Distin that is clearly Moyes’ preferred pair seems a change too far. It is a change of fortune Everton really need, starting on Saturday.