The Clash of the Uglies
Date: Tuesday 10th April 2007Whether one sees the draw as a well-earned point or a missed opportunity to make ground on the fourth Champions’ League spot, it’s difficult to be too surprised at the result. As much as the Club’s P.R. department has had squad members queuing up to stress the extent of our ambitions, first team coach Ricky Sbragia’s interview after the Wigan game is surely more representative of the mood behind the scenes. “The important thing against Everton is that we avoid defeat” was how he looked forward to the game, and it’s probably fair to say that those words set the tone for our approach. We started brightly enough on a greasy pitch and in blustery conditions. It looked for a while like Gardner had finally rediscovered the form that had made him one of our best players before his injury, as he beat players down the left with pace and skill, but sadly his confidence and enthusiasm seemed to wane the longer the game went on. Twice in the first ten minutes Diouf managed to commit unpunished handballs in the Everton box, the second one appearing to be an attempt to punch the ball into the back of the net after a flicked-on long throw from Andranik, which was received with a predictable level of humour by the sizeable Everton support. Gary Speed, one of their old boys, was given a similarly hostile reception when taking the corners that our early pressure yielded. We stroked the ball around quite well for about twenty minutes, with Diouf popping up all over the place, always looking threatening and skilful, but without ever really achieving much. Tim Howard looked very shaky in their goal, but we were unable to get a shot in to test him. We looked at our most dangerous at set-pieces and sure enough the breakthrough came midway through the half from a dinked free-kick over the top from Campo and some comical defending from Everton. As his team-mates charged out of the penalty area to create an offside trap, Joleon Lescott stayed put, apparently indifferent to what was going on, and played about four of our players onside. Campo’s ball found the unmarked Kevin Davies, who, with his back to goal, controlled the ball brilliantly on his chest and spun round to hit a sweet left-footed volley into the bottom right of Howard’s goal. After a very promising start capped by a well-taken goal, the ambition seemed to drain out of us and we didn’t trouble Howard again for the rest of the game. At one-nil down Everton saw more and more of the ball without really troubling us, but they managed an equaliser on the thirty-five minute mark. The ball ricocheted around in midfield, and a combination of a slip from the immobile-looking Campo and a naïve dive in from Nicky Hunt when jockeying would have been more effective, meant that Everton’s young striker James Vaughan found himself in space in our area, and was able to squeeze the ball under the advancing Jaaskelainen, with Andranik busting a gut to get back, but in vain. Everton ended the half in the ascendancy, but the only shots they had were speculative long-range efforts that didn’t really trouble Jussi. Already lucky not to have been booked for his ‘Hand of God’ moment, Diouf put in what might euphemistically be described as a ‘forward’s challenge’ on Phil Neville, who carried a limp for the rest of the half, with Diouf once again managing to avoid the referee’s censure somehow. Also limping in at half time was Abadoulaye Faye, and given that he limped out again for the second half, he did well to see the match out until the end. In truth, his difficulty with running could have cost us and he probably shouldn’t have been on the pitch, but he got by on his sheer physical presence and actually made some crucial headers. January acquisition Cesar was the only defender we had on the bench, and although he looked pretty sprightly warming up on the touchline, it’s clear that Sam does not feel he is ready to play in the Premiership yet, otherwise he would surely have replaced Faye. The second half was a very niggly, disjointed affair that did not look like a contest between two of the Premiership’s top six, and wasn’t helped as a spectacle by a whistle-happy ref. The highlight of the half was a back-pass inexplicably picked up by Tim Howard; the resulting free kick was chipped back across the area for Andranik to attempt an acrobatic scissor kick which seemed well-executed but was quickly blocked. As far as I can recall, there wasn’t another moment of quality to be had in the game and neither keeper had to make a meaningful save, despite a couple of scrambles in our area, and a couple of long range efforts from us. The main incident of note in the second half, apart from a sickeningly bloody injury to a clearly distraught James Vaughan, was an elderly Everton fan leaving the away end wrapped in a blanket and wearing breathing apparatus. Thank goodness the ambulance crew got to him quickly, as it would be a great shame if today’s fare were the last football he ever got to see…. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that after we scored we resorted to the kind of hopeful football that none of us likes to watch, perhaps tired after a day’s less rest than Everton over this tough Easter period. In unseasonably difficult conditions, both teams seemed satisfied by the prospect of a point and both were entirely lacking the ambition to make anything happen that might deliver victory. We’ve all got this idea in the back of our minds that the FA Cup final will probably be contested by United and Chelsea and therefore the UEFA spots will go halfway down the league. Viewed in this context, Everton’s approach, away from home, was perfectly understandable, but why we were more interested in ‘not losing’ than winning is beyond me. We showed at the outset that we had the quality to dominate them, but the body language throughout the team after we scored did not suggest to me that they were pumped up and ready to reel in an ailing Arsenal team and shock the football world by securing a Champions League spot. This talk of whether or not we are ‘ready’ for that competition is an enormous red herring. If we can compete with the best teams in England then there is nobody in Europe we need fear, especially after our European experience last season. The Reebok would be a much more attractive place for our transfer targets if we were to bear the Champions League label and I just wish that for the next five games the players and management would be prepared to put themselves on the line physically and emotionally in an unashamed and determined quest for what everyone else sees as being unrealistic. Unfortunately, as we have at this stage in the past few seasons, we look to be suffering from a bit of fatigue and lack of belief. A few comments then on some individuals: This was my first chance to see Andranik play from the start and I’m very encouraged. His willingness to run and fitness to do so makes him a real breath of fresh air in a midfield that has looked rather pedestrian for most of the season. His game is perhaps more about endeavour than raw skill, but that means he tends to try and use the ball in the most efficient and simple way he can. He is more than prepared to put his body on the line and stick his head in where it hurts in his role as a combative box-to-box midfielder. I think he has a lot of potential and looks to be the most committed player we’re fielding at the moment, with the possible exception of my next subject for discussion. Kevin Davies was fantastic yet again. As ever, he was on the end of some rough treatment seemingly unnoticed by the referee, but as soon as he did find some space he showed some great skill to get the ball down and score. As well as taking all the lumps up front, he manages to provide good cover down the right hand side, and there are few things better for stadium morale than a pre-meditated sliding tackle from Super Kevin Davies. Probably a man-of-the-match performance from Davo. Anelka was very disappointing – he had one of those days where pretty much everything he tried failed to come off, apart from one decent cross that Faye headed miles off target. He tries to do everything in a languid, shrugging, Gallic style that shows how effortlessly brilliant he is. Of course, the problem with constantly trying to appear effortless is that after a while people start to wonder whether you’re really putting enough effort in. To be fair, as ever, he never really got the service he needs, and some credit for that has to go to the Everton defence who marked him quite tightly. Other players deserving of comment include Meite who looks every inch a top Premiership centreback these days, Campo who struggled with his distribution and looked off the pace, although his remonstrating was top-notch in Nolan's absence, and Gardner who showed signs early on that he might be on his way back.