Everton will look to build on the success of their last Premier League outing against Manchester City when Stoke City come to Goodison Park on Saturday evening, but David Moyes will be forced to name a much-changed line-up from the one that saw off the champions.
Both Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar will miss the next two Everton games, Fellaini as a result of his 10th booking of the season and Pienaar the red card received against City. How Moyes copes without two of the team’s most important players against Stoke – and then against Tottenham Hotspur a week later – will determine much about the end to the Toffees’ season.
Everton have a series of immensely difficult away trips between now and May, starting with the visit to White Hart Lane and taking in trips to Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Playing three of the current top five and Everton’s fiercest rivals all on the road only makes the remaining home games more important – but the league table is so tightly packed and competitive that games cannot be written off just because they’re tough asks.
So the absence of Pienaar and Fellaini can’t be allowed to account for a poor performance against the Potters, while against Tottenham the remaining players have got to dig a little deeper to make up for the lack of their influential teammates. The Stoke game though is the priority, both because it’s next and because it’s at home, and will reveal a lot about Moyes’ approach to his squad and where various players stand in the pecking order.
Moyes is faced with few options to cover for his missing stars. One absence is a blow but two has the potential to be devastating to the smallest squad in the Premier League. On the left wing Moyes could plump for Bryan Oviedo, or move Kevin Mirallas from the right to the left and deploy Victor Anichebe in a wide berth, but that in itself has problems not wholly unrelated to the Fellaini suspension.
Anichebe was little short of phenomenal against Manchester City, getting a fully-deserved standing ovation when he was substituted late in the tie. It was far and away his best Everton performance, even if didn’t yield a goal. Moving him from his centre-forward berth threatens to disrupt the rhythm established then, and deprives Moyes of a possible solution to the Fellaini problem.
Pairing Anichebe and Nikica Jelavic in attack could be the way the manager attempts to cover for the missing Belgian, but Moyes has long struggled to get two forwards to gel, dating back to the days of Andy Johnson and James Beattie. It’s a solution that would cause further problems, but Fellaini may well be irreplaceable.
A possible wild card choice would be to give Ross Barkley free reign to break from midfield in support of the lone striker, but Barkley has been on the fringes all season and Moyes is not given to such departures from his normal practice. The manager has to come up with something, though. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest Everton’s season depends on it.
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