Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Premiership Preview--9. Everton

As much as Everton fans may not want to admit it, their club will always operate under arch-nemesis and cross-town rival Liverpool. There's no way around it; Liverpool is statistically the most successful team in English history, having won more league titles (18), Carling Cups (7), and European Cups/Champions League trophies (5) than any other club in the country. They're tied for the most UEFA Cup triumphs with three. The Reds won the Champions League again recently, just four seasons ago, reached the '06-'07 final in Athens, and won their 7th FA Cup one year prior. Everton can't stack up with that, so fair or not, they're the city of Liverpool's second club.

However, Everton is coming off their best season in just over two decades. The 1986-1987 campaign will never be forgotten by Evertonians; it was the year in which the Toffees won the old First Division, shared the Charity Shield (albeit with Liverpool), and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup. They've had some good seasons since then but nothing that would top last year's 5th-place finish, semifinal appearance in the Carling Cup, and trip to the UEFA Cup Round of 16, where they eliminated in heartbreaking fashion on PK's by Fiorentina.

With that success in mind, those fans have to be disappointed with the summer their club has had so far. Manager David Moyes hasn't brought in any new players, although he did make an effort to sign talented 21-year-old attacking midfielder João Moutinho from Sporting Lisbon. Everton's $23.6 million offer was rejected by the Portuguese side, but it's been made clear that Everton won't give up in their pursuit of the player. Manuel Fernandes returned to Valencia from his second loan spell with Everton, though Moyes has said he'd love to have Fernandes back on loan or permanently if a satisfactory deal could be reached.

An improved offer for Moutinho could be financed by the pending sale of Andy Johnson, Everton's leading scorer in all competitions two seasons ago, to Fulham. If Johnson goes, he'll join Lee Carsley, Stefan Wessels, Bjarni Vidarsson, and Patrick Boyle out the doors of Goodison Park, though of those four, only Carsley's departure could hurt Everton as he started 33 games in the center of midfield last year. Johnson's 9-12 goals a season would be missed as well, and it seems like Moyes is counting on young striker Victor Anichebe to develop on the fly next year.

Everton is strongest in their midfield already, so the additions of Moutinho and Fernandes would only make them even more dangerous. Diminutive right winger Mikel Arteta has returned to Earth with a single goal and 7 assists to his name in the Premiership a season after he broke out with 9 goals and 13 assists, but the Spaniard is still a quality player. Opposite him is another player who is slight of stature, Steven Pienaar.

Pienaar and Arteta are very effective running down the flanks, but someone has to get the ball to them first and without Carsley, you'll see a dearth of players in the middle. When the versatile Phil Neville isn't starting at right back, you'll likely find him in the holding midfield role. Phil Jagielka will probably get more time in that position this year as well with the fully-healthy Leighton Baines at left back, shifting Joleon Lescott back inside. Leon Osman can play anywhere in the midfield four; he started 10 league games in the center and on the right wing last year and also went out left for another six. The most clutch player in the Premiership, Tim Cahill, occupies the area right behind the strikers but may miss the start of the season due to recovery from surgery to fix a recurring metatarsal problem. Cahill is a sure starter when healthy -- unfortunately, he can't seem to stay fit for any long stretch of time.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Tim Howard

RB: Tony Hibbert
CB: Joseph Yobo
CB: Lescott
LB: Baines

RMF: Arteta
DMF: Neville
DMF: Jagielka
LMF: Pienaar

ST: Yakubu
*ST: Anichebe

*Anichebe's inclusion depends on the fitness of Cahill. If the Australian is ready to start the season, Anichebe will probably be relegated to the bench and Cahill would be inserted into the AMF role, altering the formation slightly to a 4-4-1-1.

Everton could see exactly where they stand as a club after their first 10 games. They'll play teams from all areas of the table -- perennial top four sides Liverpool (home), Arsenal (away), and Manchester United (home), UEFA Cup contenders Blackburn and Portsmouth, both at home, and bottom-feeders West Brom, Stoke City, Hull City, and Bolton, all away. Those opponents provide an accurate cross-section of the league, so where Everton lies in the table after those games should provide a good idea as to where they'll end up.

November brings five manageable (my favorite word these days!) fixtures -- Fulham, @West Ham, Middlesbrough, @Wigan, and @Tottenham. Anything around 10 points in those games would be a solid month for the Toffees. That game against Tottenham is the start of four consecutive difficult matches, as Everton will travel to Manchester City in between home games with Aston Villa and Chelsea.

January has trouble written all over it; Everton plays three games in a row against "Big Four" opposition, starting with the second Merseyside Derby, this one at Anfield, followed by a home date with Arsenal and a visit to Old Trafford to play the two-time defending league champions. Before that mini-stretch is a must-win home game against Hull.

Late March and early April brings the last tough run of matches for Moyes and his men. They'll play four tricky matches in five -- @Portsmouth, Wigan, @Aston Villa, Chelsea, and Manchester City at Goodison Park to finish it up. These games will probably determine whether or not Everton makes into the UEFA Cup again.

Bottom Line: Moyes hasn’t done nearly enough to strengthen this squad in my opinion. They have, in all likelihood, another grueling UEFA Cup run to deal with, and the teams around them (Portsmouth, Villa, Spurs, and Man City) have all improved considerably either through new player acquisition, holdover player development, or a combination of both. I’m not sure who is going to replace Johnson’s goals, and if Cahill isn’t healthy, there’s not much firepower and explosiveness on the team aside from Yakubu. There also isn’t much team speed, and the first team roster is too small. Bringing Moutinho in would be a big help, though, and I think you’ll see Fernandes back at Goodison Park at some point in the year. Even so, I can’t see Everton repeating last year’s finish.

Tomorrow is our first venture into the last European places, 8th and 7th. The countdown to the top continues here, so check it out in the morning.

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