Surely only the most ardent England fan took that much pleasure in watching Roy Hodgson’s team stuff San Marino on Friday. Eight goals is nothing to be dismissed but it’s about what’s expected when a group of highly-paid Premier League players meet a bunch of part-timers. From an Everton stance, though, the performance of Leighton Baines offered plenty to take note of.
The left-back spent more time as a left-sided forward, to be expected when San Marino offered no attacking threat at all, but Baines’ delivery was frequently excellent and the way in which he linked with Ashley Young reminiscent of his best moments in tandem with Steven Pienaar.
Baines has played every minute of every Everton league game this season, despite struggling variously with illness and a persistent ankle injury, and, with seven goals and five assists, has been one of David Moyes’ most important attacking players. It’s only Marouane Fellaini who can rival Baines for that kind of contribution, a sign of the company which Baines now keeps on the attacking side of his game.
Hodgson may yet pick Baines over Ashley Cole to play Montenegro on Tuesday, but the very fact that Baines is a legitimate contender to replace one of the squad’s most experienced members – and one of the first names on Chelsea’s teamsheet – speaks to how highly Everton’s No. 3 is valued even away from Goodison Park.
When he returns to domestic duty next week, and Everton play Stoke City at home, it’ll be a much-changed line-up from the one that beat Manchester City, and not by choice. Both Fellaini and Pienaar are facing two-game bans, the South African for his red card against City and Fellaini for his 10th booking of the season against the same opposition. In the absence of two important and experienced players, Baines assumes even greater responsibility.
It was seen against San Marino that Baines has the capacity to be a one-man left wing, running from touchline to touchline with power and purpose and producing a dangerous cross, such as the one that drew the first goal of the evening. He gets the freedom of the flank when paired with a right-footed midfielder, who cuts inside and changes the angle of attack. Without Pienaar, though, Bryan Oviedo is likely to get a start and the Costa Rican is left-footed, changing Baines’ role in kind.
Baines can’t simply overlap Oviedo – Oviedo wants the width too, and Baines is doing himself and his team a disservice if he hangs back. Yet the former Wigan defender has enough nous to time his runs to their maximum effect, and more than once this season has plundered goals not by overlapping, going on the outside, but under-lapping, going inside and heading straight for goal. We might well see more of that against the Potters and if we do, chances are we might see another Baines goal, adding yet more gloss to an already superb season.
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