It’s football’s ability to show that adversity can be conquered that makes it so enjoyable sometimes. When Everton travelled to Belarus for their Europa League match against BATE Borisov yesterday, they were missing nine players from their first team squad through injury, suspension or intelligibility and when they arrived, stand-in captain Joseph Yobo picked up an injury in training just for good measure.
That meant that Tony Hibbert had to fill in at centre back while young Dan Gosling was forced to drop into the right back slot. It also enforced a change of formation from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 because the only senior player on the bench (except Carlo Nash) was Yakubu, who came in to partner Jo up front and left us with outfield substitutes aged 17, 17, 17, 17, 18 and 19. And this was against a side who have won three league titles in a row and drew with Juventus twice in the Champions League groups stages last season.
I must admit, before the game I thought we could be in for a long 90 minutes. A huge away trip to Belarus to play in absolutely hammering rain is never going to be an easy game, but without Arteta, Jagielka, Pienaar, Neville, Anichebe, Saha, Heitinga, Neill, Rodwell and Yobo it looked to be nigh on impossible. Even when we managed to get 11 players on the pitch they weren’t exactly fit – Yakubu is only just returning from his cruciate injury and looked laboured throughout.
However, despite all of this Everton stood up and were counted today. We certainly didn’t play our best football, but given the overall pastiche of a lineup that was out on the park and conditions that made passing football a difficult objective for both sides and we were never going to. But Moyes’ men showed a hell of a lot of fight and determination throughout the ninety minutes, not least after going a goal down to the Belarusians in the 15th minute.
In fairness, it was one hell of a goal. Likhtarovich met a ball that came his way about 35 yards from goal with the outside of his right boot and struck it beautifully. It clipped the underside of the bar as it crashed into the back of the net and bounced out again so quickly that I was initially unsure what had happened. No keeper in the world would have saved that strike, and though you could argue that he could have been closed down faster. there wasn’t much that Everton could have done about it.
And apart from that, Tim Howard in the Everton goal had very little to do. He came for a few crosses and endured some nervous moments in the last five minutes as the ball was deflected past his posts, but otherwise he was untroubled. That’s not to say that BATE were poor, indeed they passed the ball around slickly at times and showed impressive pace on the counter attack, but Everton’s makeshift back line were surprisingly solid.
Tony Hibbert, who is not the most talented player in the world by any stretch of the imagination even when playing in his regular right-back role, was magnificent in the heart of defence, he won ball after ball and blocked plenty of shots. And when he did get turned or caught out of position he showed pace that we didn’t know he possessed to get back and make amends. Sylvain Distin, his more experienced consort was as assured as ever and though given a torrid time by a tricky winger, Dan Gosling did enough in his unfamiliar full back role.
Another impressive performance came from Mauroane Fellaini, Everton’s giant Belgian who has been employed as a striker or an attacking midfielder for much of his time at the club, due to various player shortages. However, playing today in central midfield proper as part of a flat 4-4-2 he really came into his own and showed two very good sides to his game. He put himself about and won tackle after tackle – far more cleanly than last season too, might I add – while also showing good vision and awareness to pick a range of effective passes.
A few passes did go astray, but he wasn’t alone in that and in difficult conditions, can be forgiven, especially as he notched a trademark header to equalise. From last season’s major signing to this, and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov was equally impressive. Still not fully integrated into the side and let down by his set-pieces today, his overall performance was good. He has a great touch and, much like Arteta and Pienaar, is able to draw players in and then nip past them with ease – he looks like a fine acquisition by Moyes, and one who also displays Everton’s characteristic work rate and commitment.
Two players who were disappointing though were Jo and Yakubu up front, who struggled very much to get into the game. Jo in particular looked lacklustre, not chasing opponents down and providing very little movement to aid the midfielders in their distribution. Yakubu looked good when he managed to get on the ball and looks a far more intelligent player than I remember him being, and when his fitness is fully recovered from his injury he should become a key member of our squad.
All in all then, it was a strange sort of performance. Without actually ever playing really well, Everton have earned an absolutely brilliant result. I seriously can’t overstate how big an achievement it was to travel to Belarus with half a squad and beat a very good BATE side in awful conditions. It leaves us sitting clear top of Group I of the Europa League and well on course to progress to the next round after Benfica were undone by AEK Athens in the group’s other fixture.
The most pleasing thing of all though is that even though Everton were missing ten first team players for one reason or another, we were still able to put out a side that could compete against decent European opposition. Over the past few years now Moyes has been gradually building Everton into a consistent top six side, and all we’ve needed to push on has been greater strength in depth. Now though, let’s look at tonight’s team lineup and compare it to one made up of those players who weren’t available:
|XI vs. Bate Borisov
*So if you allow Carlo Nash to play ‘keeper for the ‘Unavailable XI’, you have to say that there are two very strong lineups taken from our squad. Now just imagine, come January when hopefully all of the players suffering from long term knee injuries will be getting back fit again and Neill and Heitinga can be registered for the Europa League, we’re going to have an incredibly strong squad.
Indeed, I believe that there we have a squad which has sufficient strength in depth to allow us to mount a serious challenge to the top four – if we receive any sort of luck with injuries. Last season we lost Arteta, Jagielka, Yakubu and Anichebe to long term injuries, from which only Yakubu has yet returned, and with Pienaar and Neville picking up fresh injuries so far this season, that is no guarantee. However, if Moyes does have some fortune in the near future, and can keep the majority of this squad fit, then bright things lie ahead for Everton football club.
Most amazingly though is that that squad that you can see there has been amassed for a fraction of the price of those squads of the ‘big four’ and Manchester City against whom we will hope to compete. The most payed for any one player on either of those lineups is about £14-15m that Moyes paid for Fellaini last season and indeed – if memory serves – only Fellaini and Yakubu have been acquired for fees larger than £10m whereas if you look at two of the strongest line-ups I can draw from Man City’s current squad:
|City Lineup 1
|City Lineup 2
…there is undoubtedly a lot of talent there, and those two teams are perhaps stronger than Everton’s two, but in those two sides there are no fewer than 11 players who cost them £10m or more. Of course, quality does usually cost money but I think it’s an incredible achievement that Moyes has managed to build a squad that will be able to compete with City’s for such a fractional comparative outlay. It shows that it isn’t all about money these days in football, though cold hard currency certainly quickens things up.
The result against BATE Borisov today then, was one that meant a hell of a lot to Everton Football Club. Not only has it continued our good form (that has seen us score 14 goals and concede just 1 in five games) but it has also given a clear indication that we are getting closer and closer to being able to seriously mount a challenge to the ‘big four’ and the Champions League, despite lacking the financial power of our rivals.
This has been Moyes’ goal since he joined the club, he’s gone about his job with dignity and skill and as an Evertonian, I’m delighted to see that we’ve shown that adversity can be overcome with perseverance. Life will always throw up problems in our path but if you want something badly enough and are willing to work towards it, success will come eventually. Football, ever a perfect analogy for life itself, has shown us that, and I look forward to seeing Moyes and Everton reap the rewards for their efforts.
Have your say:
What do you think? Has David Moyes assembled a squad capable of Champions League qualification or is he a few players short? Please leave your thoughts in a comment below…