Everton Focus – Baines shines but defensive problems persist

Everton’s first fixture of 2013 followed a pattern set by many of the fixtures in the latter half of 2012 – shoddy defending to concede the first goal, then a comeback usually inspired in part by Leighton Baines. Against Newcastle United, the left-back made a spectacularly direct contribution to overturning the deficit.

Baines’ free-kick deserves to go down in the legend in the same category as Roberto Carlos’ memorable goal for Brazil against France in 1997. Carlos took a run at the ball where Baines went from a standing start but the outcome was the same – seemingly impossible swerve and a goalkeeper left helpless. It was an incredible goal and one for which Baines deserves the plaudits that followed. The technique to strike a ball so well and the daring to even attempt to score from so far out speak to the player’s ability and character.

Having played a part in the now customary disintegration of the Everton defence, this time from a simple long ball that was eventually looped over Tim Howard by Papiss Cisse, a harsh critic might suggest that Baines owed Everton the goal. Baines’ positioning was flawed once the punt evaded both Sylvain Distin and John Heitinga – the centre-backs somehow both challenging for and missing the ball – and Baines’ decision to step up late left Cisse with the straightforward task of beating the goalkeeper.

Baines has been widely praised in the aftermath of the Newcastle victory for his attacking prowess, and rightly so. Against the Magpies he was superb, although no more superb than he has been for most of the season. But the Newcastle match was televised and the wider world saw what Goodison Park has seen for some time. The link between Baines and Steven Pienaar on the left flank – including one delicious combination that sent the midfielder through on goal – is magical.

If David Moyes could work out how to replicate the form of that partnership in his two central defenders then Everton would be flying. As it is whichever combination of Distin, Heitinga and Phil Jagielka Moyes has chosen has been porous, prone to at least one lapse in concentration per game and at times abetted by errors from goalkeeper Howard. It is now 17 league and cup games since Everton last registered a clean sheet, untypical of a Moyes team.

In the last 17 games of last season, from beating Blackpool in the FA Cup in February to beating Newcastle in May, Everton shut out the opposition eight times and conceded 16 goals, scoring 30. The Toffees won eight of those games, drew six and lost three. In the 17 games since their last clean sheet, against Swansea City, Everton have conceded 22, scored 28 and won six, drawn eight and lost three.

The number of goals going in remains roughly the same but the leaky defence has led, unsurprisingly, to fewer wins. For all the fine Baines’ performances and stunning free-kicks, Everton stand to miss out on the Champions League as long as this problem goes unsolved.

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