There’s nothing to fear here, right? Magaye Gueye notched up a brace for the Under 21s, so if Goodison survives the hail of comets, the Mersey running red with blood and bursting its banks, as well as Margaret Thatcher returning from the grave to exact the Scouse Tax on our fair city, we’ll smash ’em. Only joking of course, people. Latest intelligence indicates that she’s still dead.
In our way this weekend stands the last obstacle preventing us from reaching the Promised Land of that Champions League we have to suffer watching English sides stumble through each year, namely an Arsenal side we couldn’t beat if they all put on Fulham shirts to fool us. There’s just something about them. The fact that the last winning goalscorer for us against the Gooners, just over 7 years ago, was Andy Johnson suggests that something’s amiss. Rather scarily, the bogey teams of old (i.e. anyone we played a few times in the Moyes era) haven’t been dealt with so well this season. Another defeat at Stamford Bridge. A scrappy draw at Carrow Road. One point gained from six against the dark side. At least we beat United, eh? Oviedo baby.
Zero wins in the last fourteen attempts against Arsenal doesn’t make for good reading, although a run of three straight league draws is a sign of improvement. The last meeting between the two sides was a fateful affair where we blew a big chance of success. That sounds almost too familiar…in any case, it exposed the one flaw to the Martínez system this season. As a young boss, our tactics have sometimes been a bit naive against the big sides. Throwing on McGeady and Osman with 15 minutes to go was admirable, but it left us exposed at the back to an extent. In that case it’s no wonder that our away defeats have come against Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, Man City and Arsenal. Unlike Spurs, who happened to be lethal against us and not anyone else, like the red lot or that other lot – not that I’m bitter about it or anything – Arsenal always have the ability to win a game if the chance is provided.
But the fact it’s at Goodison Park can only aid us. Arsene Wenger has spoke about our “aggressive” atmosphere, and the intimidation factor works well on Arsenal. Even when they’ve outplayed us at Goodison, we’ve always been worth a goal as the Gwladys suck the ball in whilst scaring the Arsenal defence off. Yeah, Per Mertesacker. Sure you’re hard. Come and show us eh. In any case, Arsenal have lost against 4 of the 6 teams with the best home form – the other two are themselves and us.
11 points out of 33 picked up against fellow top 7 sides this season is not winning form after all, which is why Arsenal are having their classic run of awful form. As my old ma always tells me after years of watching Arsenal from the North Bank, the Gunners sure do love to mess up at pivotal times. One win from five games in March constitutes the form of a side on the way down.
Their team for this one is short of full strength – they’ve had a terrible time with injuries – but there’s a lot of class present. Sczcesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs (I’ve checked, it definitely is Gibbs) form a solid defence, although it’s widely claimed that the Belgian is way past his best. With Lukaku and Barkley causing havoc, it could be a tough afternoon for him. Mertesacker is not pacy but reads the game so far ahead of most strikers that it’s not an issue. Plus he’s a big German, which means we won’t have much luck at corners again. Flamini and Arteta form a solid midfield base – yeah, Arteta grabbed the Arsenal badge. What a greasy **** eh? He also served us well, so leave off. Cazorla, Rosicky and Podolski provide creative quality without pace, and Olivier Giroud’s a melon. Put him down for another brace. This side is strong, certainly, and were fantastic against Man City after a slow start last week. But after 16 years straight qualifying for the Champions League, Arsenal face a fight to hold on to what they have.
And would you credit it? People are starting to believe that little old Everton are a threat to them. When you see an article in the Daily Mail saying Everton aren’t just punching above their weight, Roberto Martínez has instilled a culture of success and Ross Barkley isn’t on his way to Chelsea, you can’t help thinking sunshine and rainbows. Of course, it’s not all so rosy; right now it’s only about what could be. I’d rather not be writing in May about what might have been.
Our form going into this game is completely different from Arsenal’s though; five straight wins constitutes our best form since 2002 and the early Moyes days (take that as you will). Although it was “only” West Ham, Cardiff, Swansea, Newcastle and Fulham we dealt with – and one of those is a complete bunch of useless no-hopers who would be better off in the Championship…but enough about Newcastle – that’s a formidable run of form. In the past that sort of run would be punctuated by a draw that leaves us wanting more. This time we’ve picked up 15 points from 15, pegged back Arsenal’s advantage by 10 points and played some quality togger in the process. Now that’s form to give us hope. Not just hope – belief. Even expectation.
Dealing with Fulham was harder than expected, but again Roberto Martínez changed the game with his substitutes. Not as in sticking Johnny Heitinga on with five minutes left to hold on to the points. Positive changes. Steven Naismith is playing some quality fitba right now, while it turns out that Aiden McGeady is boss after all. That chest control and pass for Kevin Mirallas made me want to go to Woolworth’s, it was that nostalgic. Mirallas himself continues to frustrate and still make an impact, which isn’t half bad. What this means is that, with quality players on the bench, we can go into the final half hour of a game knowing that we’re not going to stagnate. This is just too exciting, I’m going to need to lie down.
Speaking of excitement, I now hold the world record for most orgasms experienced by a man in two minutes after watching the Goal of the Season candidates. Everton really have treated us, haven’t they? My vote went to Coleman vs Southampton, followed by Barkley vs Swansea and Lukaku’s excellent team goal against the Saints. Frankly I could’ve picked any three and been happy with my choice. It’s the same for Player of the Season. The most popular choices will be Coleman, McCarthy, Barry or Barkley, but who has been bad? No-one. Well, Arouna Kone-nah, no-one. Every player has been utilised in some way to their best, which means Everton can play to our best. That stands us in great stead for today, then.
Howard, Coleman, Stones, Distin, Baines. Sorted. John Stones was far and away the best player on the pitch last week. Skipping past players, stroking the ball out to the wing and racing to the box to try and get a finishing touch would’ve got a defender lynched in the bad old days, but Stonesy did it with class and maturity. Alongside Distin, who could learn a thing or two about confidence on the ball from the lad, he will give Olivier Giroud a torrid time. James McCarthy looked a bit lost in the first ten minutes, but diving in to prevent Steve Sidwell from scoring was masterful, and he grew into the game. There’s a reason he was my choice for Player of the Season, and that reason is that he makes us tick. The conversation in the pub with a Newcastle fan which concluded in him saying that Jordan Henderson is better than McCarthy made me haemorrhage. McGeady, Barkley and Mirallas or Osman will flank Lukaku. That means Deulofeu and Naismith can make an impact from the bench. What a chance this is.
Is a draw all that bad? Not really. A win in that game in hand would put us a point behind Arsenal, which at least keeps the pressure up. There are plenty of big games coming up, and it’s not all down to this one. But I’ll put it this way – no team has ever had 60 or more points after 31 games of a Premier League season and failed to finish in the top four – we reached 60 and Arsenal reached 63. Someone’s going to make history in a bad way.
So, basically, we can be as nervous as we like. Thanks, I’ll take that offer. But you can bet that Everton will take this on with confidence and do us proud. Don’t peg all your hopes on this one, Blues….but imagine eh. Phew. I could get used to this Roberto Martínez stuff.
Up the Blues.