Firstly, apologies for my slightly slack posting recently – I’ve been compiling an application to a postgrad journalism course and it’s been a lot of work. Gone are the days of just filling in a form you know, but I’m nearly there with it now so will be returning to regular posts ASAP (don’t mention exams though, yeah?).
Secondly, today’s post is as much for my own benefit as for yours. There are few things that can make me thoroughly enjoy the prospect of getting out of bed before six o’clock on a Friday morning, but one of them is the prospect of watching Everton playing in Europe. As those of you who’ve seen the score (which, for reasons of self-preservation I won’t repeat) will know, it wasn’t really worth it. Such a defeat is always demoralising and makes you feel like the world has just ended.
Well first things first, despite the strength of my obsession with my football club, I’ve discovered many times in the past that a heavy defeat doesn’t actually have many serious ramifications for the stability of the planet and the universe in which we inhabit. Even though everything feels like so much more of an effort for a week or so after a thrashing, the physical laws of the universe aren’t steadily collapsing. Which is something to keep in mind – it’s not OK to just stay in bed for a week, you probably have things to be doing.
So while these next few days will not be much fun for my fellow Evertonians and I, we may take some solace in the fact that on Sunday, we have a chance to redeem ourselves with a Premier League game against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium. It’s fair to say our league form has somewhat tailed off with a couple of home draws against such powerhouses as uh… Stoke and Wolves… BUT off the back of such a humiliating defeat in Europe, there’s little doubt that the players will be desperate to make amends.
Whether they have anything to make amends for though, is uncertain. I mean yes, usually when a side loses by such a scoreline then you’d really expect them to have plenty to make up for. But in truth, despite my pre-match optimism, it isn’t entirely surprising that we were so thoroughly outplayed by Benfica. Benfica are after all usually a Champions League team, and on paper they’ve got a lot of talent: Luisao, Di Maria, Aimar, Saviola, Cardozo and Ramires to name just six.
Of course, I’d usually back Everton against Benfica – our best XI vs. their best XI would be a cracking game but I think we’d win. Unfortunately, the side that Davey Moyes was forced into naming yesterday was a very long way from what one could consider to be our strongest eleven. Seriously, I thought we had some bad luck with injuries last season but we’ve actually managed to top it already this term.
Going into the game we were without: Arteta, Jagielka, Neville and Anichebe with long-term injuries. Pienaar, Yobo and Osman had all picked up short-term niggles and so didn’t travel, while Baines managed to pick up an injury presumably in training when the squad arrived in Portugal. Then you have to remember that Heitinga and Neill are both still ineligible for European competition and that I’ve probably forgotten someone somewhere.
All of this together meant that we fielded a back four of which only one member was playing his natural position (Distin, for the record) with a right back at centre back, a right-winger at right back and a right back making his senior debut at left back. Strange really that we had two right backs on the pitch and yet neither were playing right back, but in fairness Moyes had little option.
Our midfield was out of sorts too with young Rodwell again thrown in at the deep end and partnered by the also-still-young Fellaini with Cahill deployed out of position on the right hand flank. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov occupied the left flank and provided us with some much-needed creative spark – until, naturally, he picked up an injury in the second half and had to be withdrawn. Typical.
Up front, we were actually quite well stocked, with Moyes opting to start with the returning-from-injury Yakubu alongside Jo with top scorer Louis Saha on the bench – no doubt he had half a mind on the fact that we play Bolton on Sunday and then Tottenham in the Carling Cup shambolically on the Tuesday. Yep, that’s three games in six days for the team with half a squad squeezed onto the treatment table.
Given the rather threadbare nature of the squad then, it’s easy to see why Benfica stuffed us. They’re a quality side and on our day, so are we. Today just wasn’t our day. Plain and simple, if we’d have gotten anything from the Stadium of Light (I can’t remember the Portuguese) it would pretty much have been an absolute miracle. It would have been nice to not get so thoroughly beaten, but with an inspired Angel Di Maria (how fucking good is he, just by the way?) up against a makeshift right-back, it’s little wonder that we shipped so many.
So let’s not despair. Yeah, we got hammered, but we’re still joint top of the group and we’ll still almost certainly qualify, plus we can hope that by the time Benfica visit Goodison we’ll have more of a team available and can wreak some bloody vengeance on them – revenge is sweet after all. And with AEK and BATE proving to be not the most stubborn opponents in the world, there’s a good chance we’ll make it through the group reasonably comfortably.
Of course, in the more immediate future it’s hard to put such a rosy shine on things. Moyes has revealed that he doesn’t expect any of his casualties to be fit for the game against Bolton on Sunday and given that we then face Tottenham a few days later, it’s unlikely they’ll make it for that clash either. We badly need a win in the league after the aforementioned draws and Moyes is certainly keen to try and stay in the cup competitions as they represent a chance for the silverware he so craves.
The return of Heitinga and Neill will boost the numbers for our squads for these fixtures at least though, and should allow Moyes to name an actual back four with each position filled by somewhere experienced in their role. This will be a huge boost as you really do have to start at the back as a foundation for good play and that showed last night. On occasion the Toffees strung a few passes together but with such a mish-mash of a back line there was no solid base from which to build.
Bolton haven’t exactly been setting the league alight either, though their form has picked up a bit in the last couple of games and they’ll certainly be trying to take advantage of such a weakened Everton side. As regular commenter Matilda has predicted though (my own predictions will be up tomorrow as usual), it is hard to see Bolton taking the three points with a draw or away win looking the more likely result and that could be just the boost that Moyes’ men need.
Spurs on Tuesday pose a much more difficult task. Harry Redknapp has got them playing some really good football and all three of their strikers (because everyone’s forgotten about Pavlyuchenko so he pretty much doesn’t count any more, does he?) very much in possession of their shooting boots at present, I’m finding it hard to draw on my usual optimism for our Carling Cup prospects. We might pull off an unlikely win, we’ve got great spirit, but it does look unlikely at this juncture. Which is a shame, given that I realised a few weeks back that I’m keen for us to win it, but let’s focus on the league and the FA Cup eh?
So all in all, I’m trying not to be too downhearted about the Europa League result. Losing so heavily always sucks and it does make life a bit worse for a time, but I don’t think it’s time to despair just yet. Everton didn’t really get hammered by Benfica, we got hammered by Lady Luck consistently in the weeks (and months) leading up to the game. Our luck will change, we’ll get our injured players back, and we’ll get back on form. I hope it happens sooner rather than later, but there’s solace in the knowledge that it will happen eventually.