Tuesday night sees Everton welcome Oldham Athletic to Goodison Park in a crucial FA Cup 5th round replay.
Toffees boss, David Moyes, has been coming under increasing fire since the weekend’s late surrender to Norwich City in the Premier League. His side were quick out of the traps at the beginning of the season, bucking their usual habit of getting away to slow starts. Their quick, incisive play and eye for goal had people sit up and take notice and many thought this might be the year they could break into the top four for the first time since 2005.
Gradually however, Everton have struggled to finish teams off when they’ve been in the ascendency, resulting in too many drawn games and subsequently far too many wasted points for a realistic finish in the Champions League qualification places.
Renowned for their late season form, this year is turning into an opposite of the norm for the men from Merseyside. Since they failed to significantly strengthen their already sparse squad in the January transfer window once the Leroy Fer deal was aborted, they have limped through February without a victory in four games which included the drawn first tie with Oldham at Boundary Park.
The verve, so evident in the Blues’ play before Christmas has vanished and to compound matters, their defence, a traditional strength, has become somewhat of an Achilles heel as they continually leak unnecessary and uncharacteristic goals.
Everton’s problems are thus: Nikica Jelavic can barely stay onside this season, nevermind hit the back of the net. Johnny Heitinga, when chosen, has been generous to a fault in his defensive duties. Kevin Mirallas has been prone to hamstring issues and has therefore lost playing time and sharpness. Lastly, and possibly most tellingly, opposition defences seem to have worked out how to defend against and upset Marouane Fellaini, and have been able to reduce the effectiveness of the Leighton Baines/Steven Pienaar combination.
You may want to class the above as ‘Plan A’ and when this plan works, very few teams can live with Everton and they’ve proved themselves to be a match for anyone in the Premier League when things go right. However, Plan A seems to have failed recently and when this happens, Everton’s limitations in the squad, both technically and numerically are cruelly exposed. Worryingly for Evertonians there is currently a distinct lack of ‘Plan B’.
This is where the manager earns his corn. Moyes, never short of admirers for what he has done at Goodison on a restrictive budget in his 11 year tenure, needs to inventively shuffle his pack if his team’s season is not to fade away tamely. Fourth spot in the Premier League is now realistically disappearing over the horizon and if the unthinkable occurs on Tuesday evening and Everton are dumped out of the FA Cup by lower league Oldham, serious questions will be asked.
That’s not to say questions aren’t already being thrown Moyes’ way presently. Talks over a new contract have been delayed until the end of the season sparking rumours that if conditions are not right, the Scot could walk out of Goodison. As mentioned earlier, his time at Everton has more often than not been spent working on a tight budget and having seen his side struggle to cope this year it is becoming increasingly unlikely he will put pen to paper unless given a substantial war chest to use in the transfer market this summer. But with the boardroom situation at Everton unlikely to change anytime soon, Moyes hopes of wholesale squad reinforcement are likely to be dashed.
The one saving grace left for both the fans, and possibly Moyes prospects of remaining in the hotseat at Goodison is success in the FA Cup. A victory over League 2 side Oldham Athletic would set up a home tie with Premier League strugglers Wigan Athletic in the quarter finals. This would give the Toffees another great opportunity of a trip to Wembley for the semi-final, and who knows what else depending on the draw they get.
But beating Oldham is easier said than done, as both clubs from the city of Liverpool can testify to in this year’s FA Cup. Having dumped the Reds out in the last round, they would love nothing more than doing the double and dispatching the Blues aswell.
The Latics come into the replay on an unbeaten four game run, and although their victories are coming at an inferior level to Tuesday’s opponents lofty position, their confidence will be sky high.
They have also been one of several lower league teams to inflict misery on David Moyes in his time at Everton in cup competitions, so they won’t hold any fears about doing the same at Goodison Park on Tuesday.
The game will not be pretty, but it does hold intrigue for those willing to put up with what should be a crash, bang, wallop cup tie. And for Moyes and Everton in particular, the stakes are massive.