Everton received a late Christmas present on Thursday when the red card shown to Darron Gibson against West Ham United was rescinded, freeing the midfielder to appear in the Toffees’ next Premier League match against Chelsea on Sunday.
The meeting with Rafael Benitez’s in-form Blues represents a challenge much unlike Everton’s last, the home win over Wigan Athletic. Chelsea remain reliant on the individual talent of Juan Mata, and, to a lesser extent, Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard. Wigan though are a unit, a team better than the sum of their parts and excellently put together by the manager, Roberto Martinez, all compliments applied in the past to Everton under David Moyes.
Wigan came to Goodison Park and made the best fist yet of stopping Leighton Baines. The left-back is much more than a left-back to Everton – he is essentially a playmaker, at least half of one in tandem with Steven Pienaar. But by having Ronnie Stam pursue Baines all over the pitch, to the point the Dutchman ran 40 yards to close Baines down near his own penalty area, the England international’s influence was as limited as it has been at any point this season.
Stam and Baines tangled often and occasionally in a way that crossed the boundary of legality on the field, usually though out of sight of any of the officials. Stam at one point gave Baines a shove after the ball had been played. Baines responded by tapping Stam’s ankles. It was symptomatic of the individual battles across the field, simmering thanks in part to the frantic pressing game Wigan employed, but never boiling over into nastiness.
Baines will nevertheless face an altogether different test against Chelsea, one not so much from the right-back directly opposing the former Wigan player, but the pressure of sharing a pitch with Ashley Cole, the incumbent England left-back and the player Baines’ performance is bound to be judged against. Without the frenetic attention of whoever Chelsea’s version of Stam would be, Baines might be able to have a telling say on the match.
If Baines can make a winning contribution to what would be a famous Everton victory, he will also strengthen his claim to usurp Cole at international level. But on the other hand, a performance short of his best could extend Cole’s hold on the No. 3 shirt a little while longer. While their teammates will have plenty to say on the outcome of the match, Baines vs. Cole makes for an intriguing subplot.
The battle of the left-backs is just one of the stories in the background of the match. Will Everton keep their first clean sheet since September? Can they cope again without Marouane Fellaini? Will Fernando Torres again by the scourge of Goodison Park, as he often was for Liverpool? And just how unwelcome will Benitez be made to feel on his return to the blue half of Liverpool? Never popular at Everton, the delight in beating Benitez’s current charges would be palpable.
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