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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
06/07: Reports:

Division One, 19/08/06, 3.00pm
Everton
versus
Watford
 
Teeth Bared
By Matt Rowson

So. Here we are then. Blimey.

Cardiff seems like a couple of days ago. The enormity of the achievement and performance in the play-offs still hasn't quite sunk in - to not just win but to do so comprehensively, disdainfully. And yes, I know I've been distracted. But if I'm blinking at the rate at which Goodison Park has approached then I can only imagine what it must be like for the management at the club, faced with the Play-off champions' lot of having to shake off the hangover pretty damn sharpish and get to readying the ship for the ride ahead.

I don't doubt that Betty had a pretty comprehensive plan of action in any event... what to do if, when, whom dependent on contingencies, the weather, whatever. Still a big ask though. On the basis of pre-season, one that's being answered pretty robustly; if drawing with (having lead) Inter and beating Chievo doesn't stir you, then Ashley Young's sabre-rattling interview on the BBC website surely must have done. Whatever happens this season, we're heading into it teeth bared.

It's kind of appropriate that it's Everton. A top flight side since before time began (even before it rechristened itself the Premiership - not, not - and became Officially Very Important), and yet not the sort of side embedded in the top four by the inherent conservatism of the Champions' (sic) League. Just the sort of opponent that our season will depend on, in other words, since we won't stand or fall on the basis of games against Chelsea or Sheffield United.

Everton are also a side against whom some significant landmarks fell in the eighties; both the Cup Final in 1984 (Andy Gray, grrr etc) and our own 2-0 victory in our top flight debut in 1982. No question about the validity of the second goal in that one, of course.

It's twenty years this season since Everton last won the title, and the Merseyside club find themselves in the no-mans-land between serious title-challenging potential and relegation candidacy. Fourth place is dangled (for goodness' sake) as a carrot for the likes of the Toffees, but even reaching that target is no guarantee of lasting prosperity and admittance to the exclusive club at the top of the table, as Everton's fate last season demonstrated.

Realistically, Everton are probably looking at chasing a UEFA Cup place this season; they've every chance, as below the top four or five there seems to be precious little to choose between most of the sides in the top flight. That's the level we've got to aspire to, for now.

Following the summer retirement of Nigel Martyn Everton are likely, as ourselves, to field a loanee from Old Trafford in goal; Tim Howard comes from a long line of goalkeepers-who-weren't-Peter-Schmeichel, and whilst not as definitively short of the mark as some that preceded him the American does have his moments; you kinda feel that we got the better deal from Sir Alex in this respect. No less shaky is probable deputy Richard Wright, so Moyes will be hoping that Howard doesn't have too many moments like the goal he conceded against Bilbao last weekend.

At full-back, with Tony Hibbert sidelined through illness Phil Neville, amongst the England squad more surprising inclusions, 52 caps or otherwise, is likely to play on the right. Portuguese Nuno Valente is first choice on the left but there appear to be some doubts over his fitness, the World Cup semi-finallist having returned to training late and been featured sparingly in a largely uninspiring pre-season programme. Alessandro Pistone and Gary Naysmith are both possible alternatives, the latter one of the army of names linked with ourselves over the summer and not a popular selection if messageboards are anything to go by.

No more popular was the decision to retain David Weir's services as skipper for the season, the thirty-six year old's best years apparently behind him. Perhaps unfortunately, a groin strain looks like preventing his involvement; instead we are likely to see two from another veteran, Alan Stubbs, Nigerian Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott. Lescott has for some time been the best defender in Division Two, and has just about stayed fit for long enough for someone to take a punt; if this state of affairs prevails Everton are unlikely to bemoan the 5million invested in his signature.

Everton's weakest area would appear to be in midfield where a number of tidy enough individuals comprise a unit which is short on both pace and brawn. Lee Carsley could provide the latter, although he missed most of last season through injury and was linked with a move to Wolves over the summer. Otherwise Leon Osman is probably the likeliest candidate to partner one-man bar-brawl Tim Cahill in the centre; Mikael Arteta, one of few to impress in pre-season, seems likely to be fielded on the left to leave Kevin Kilbane looking at the bench at best whilst either Simon Davies, who disappointed last season, or Andy Van der Meyde, minus dog, should play on the right. It's possible that Moyes will re-enforce the centre by playing Carsley behind a narrower three, although in a game that, initially at least, most opponents will be seeing as amongst their easiest of the season he might be expected to be more positive.

Up front, the likeliest pairing seems to be inconsistent thirteen-stone tart James Beattie, who we still owe one for his goal in the Cup Semi three years ago (I still say Robbo was fouled...) and Andy Johnson, who may feel that he owes us one for events at the end of last season. It looks a decent partnership on paper, but has yet to really click in pre-season. Options from the bench could include "enigmatic" (that's a euphemism if ever I heard one) James McFadden and eighteen year-old Victor Anichebe, another who has caught the eye in pre-season. Long-term fixture Duncan Ferguson left the club this summer; Everton may see in the opposing forward line a reflection of the Ferguson that first joined them in the mid-nineties. Minus court-cases and so forth, natch.

The build-up, the anticipation, is almost over. Public opinion seems largely convinced of what's in store for us, much as the odd-cap is doffed at Betty. A good number in Hertfordshire will have expectations differing from those. Who's calling it right? We get our first clues on Saturday.