9 September ~ Matches between Everton and Aston Villa usually follow one of two distinct courses. They are either multi-goal thrillers that leave one set of fans elated and the other exhausted at the final whistle, or they are dour draws or single-goal affairs that leave supporters of both sides questioning their life choices and wondering where it all went wrong. After a tumultuous summer at Goodison Park, such a passive afternoon when the two sides meet tomorrow as the latter suggests would probably be welcome.
If anyone believed that the start of the new season would herald a respite from unseemly tales of spats between the board and a supporters' group or newspaper whispers linking Everton's better players to moves elsewhere, they have been mistaken. Inept in their first league game against Queens Park Rangers, Everton somehow got worse against Blackburn Rovers but still came away with a victory. If playing poorly and winning really is the sign of a good team, then on the evidence from Ewood Park, Everton are actually world-beaters.
How Everton cope without the player who earned the points at Blackburn from the penalty spot, Mikel Arteta, will begin to be answered against Villa. Even though Arteta didn't have a particularly good season last year he was still Everton's most composed player in possession, and replacing someone widely described upon his departure as the most talented Everton player in a generation is never going to be an easy task regardless of his recent form.
Arteta's deadline-day sale didn't quite raise the predicted ire from Evertonians. Resignation was a more common reaction, which only made matters worse since anger is an easier emotion to deal with than grudging acceptance. You know how to deal with a player you feel has stabbed you in the back. What to do when one calmly sits down and reasons with you, as Arteta did in a final interview with the club's website, is an altogether more conflicting experience.
The atmosphere on Saturday promises to be along the same lines, so low are the expectations of most home supporters after the events of the summer, but so high remains the standard Everton are still expected to reach. Selling off your best players is rarely a route to success, something Villa have experienced lately too. But if there isn't a definite improvement in Everton's performance, sections of the crowd will have no problem relocating their vitriol.
For a few years midway through the last decade Everton and Villa were considered the teams most likely to break into the Champions League cabal, but save for one fleeting Everton appearance in 2005 they were both left on the outside looking in. Now, as their financial situation continues to degenerate, Everton are simply trying to keep their heads above water. Andrew Tuft