Southampton v Everton, 8pm
21 January ~ The sacking of Nigel Adkins and the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino have ensured the spotlight is firmly fixed on Southampton ahead of tonight’s game with Everton, so little has been said about what an important match this is for the visitors. When Everton last travelled to St Mary’s, in February 2005, David Moyes’s men were pursuing Champions League qualification, just as they are today, while their hosts were battling relegation. The recently signed James Beattie volleyed an early goal against his old club that Sunday afternoon but Everton were ultimately grateful to grab a draw thanks to an injury-time Marcus Bent strike.
That draw moved Everton five points clear of Liverpool, and they eventually clung on to fourth spot with just 61 points, while Harry Redknapp – another controversial managerial appointment – failed to save Southampton from the drop.
Eight years on, the Blues travel to the south coast with the same ambition as then and with a better team. Indeed there is a sense they may never get a better chance – forgive the ingrained Evertonian pessimism but who knows where Leighton Baines, Marouane Fellaini and even Moyes himself may be come next autumn? – but repeating the feat of 2004-05 will be less easy. Tottenham are four points better off in fourth, and Arsenal and an improving Liverpool three points behind.
If Everton are to take fourth place, this is the kind of match you feel they have to win, especially after last week’s home stalemate with Swansea. A victory would create a six-point cushion over the teams below them, and put them right on Spurs’ shoulders. It should not be beyond a team beaten just three times in their last 31 league outings, but then this is also a side with a knack of snatching draws from the jaws of victory (ten and counting this season).
It would help Everton’s chances if Kevin Mirallas were fit for his first appearance since early December, though this seems unlikely. The Belgian’s pace was a significant asset during their flying start to the campaign; moreover his presence back in the side would help ease the strain on Nikica Jelavic, the latest striker seemingly struggling with the twin tasks of scoring goals and being the hard-working leader of the line that Moyes demands.
A passage in David Weir’s book Extra Time might lend some insight into Jelavic’s lack of sharpness in front of goal compared with last term. Weir reflects on the difficulties that all of Moyes’s strikers – not least Beattie, the man in the spotlight at St Mary’s eight years ago – faced in performing consistently over a sustained period of time, and he makes an instructive point when he says: “Probably the best, over a period of time, was Marcus Bent in that good season we had but you could only play four or five games at that level, with the workrate the manager wanted, while trying to score goals and then you needed a rest.” Everton’s small, tight-knit squad may be a virtue in some regards, but perhaps not for the centre-forwards. Simon Hart