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Everton thinking big to worry Benitez

Premier League Everton

by Phil McNulty - BBC Sport 29 February 2008


Everton have never forgotten how Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez described them as "a small club" in a fit of churlishness following last season's goalless Anfield derby.


It was an outburst that reflected no credit on Benitez - and one that may yet return to haunt him come season's end as Everton add to his own worries over his long-term Anfield future.


Everton would never say it, but they may just be enjoying seeing Benitez sweat on fourth place in the Premier League, the position that is now effectively the new first for Liverpool this season.


An impressive win at Manchester City on Monday, another club striving to break the supposed established order, confirmed Everton's credentials as a team equipped to go the distance.


And it finally saw Everton given some over-due praise for a season that has been a huge credit to manager David Moyes and his players.


While Liverpool have been hitting the headlines for boardroom squabbling, managerial uncertainty and fans' protests, Everton have been sailing along on calm seas.


The progress is also a victory for chairman Bill Kenwright, who refused to follow the poor example of several fellow chairmen and kept faith with his manager in troubled times.


Moyes guided Everton into the Uefa Cup after finished sixth last term, and a shrewd (if somewhat belated) summer's work in the transfer market has seen them flourish at home and abroad.


Everton fell to Chelsea in the Carling Cup semi-final, but have been in the upper reaches of the Premier League all season and have moved impressively towards a tough last 16 meeting with Fiorentina in Europe.


Moyes has been allowed to build a team over time and the results of his labours are bearing fruit.


He plucked Joleon Lescott and Tim Cahill from the Championship and both have proved outstanding purchases, while Tim Howard and Phil Neville came from Manchester United to add experience.


Moyes needed to choose his signings carefully to add quality and flair last summer after qualifying for Europe, and his patience has been well-rewarded.


He even had a stroke of luck when a last-minute change of heart ensured Everton did not pay a ludicrous £12m for the over-rated Manuel Fernandes, who has disappointed since returning on loan from Valencia.


Yakubu was eventually the big-money signing, and despite a ponderous start that threatened to confirm the fears of many Everton fans, he has been a magnificent purchase.


The big Nigerian has always been a goalscorer, but under Moyes he has added work-rate and a team ethic to his major quality as a a marksman.


South African midfielder Steven Pienaar, signed on a season-long loan from Borussia Dortmund, is an elegant part of the brains of an operation alongside Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman.


This has seen Everton move from a functional to a more flowing side this season, pleasing on the eye as well as uncompromising when it matters.


Lee Carsley is unsung, but underpins the whole style as the holding midfield player who protects defenders and allows midfield to flourish.


And in recent weeks, another summer capture has emerged as one of the team's outstanding figures.


Phil Jagielka struggled desperately on arrival from Sheffield United, looking uncomfortable at right-back and unsuited in midfield. But a switch to his favoured central defensive position has been the catalyst for a string of man-of-the-match performances.


Moyes moved to reassure Jagielka that the Premier League was a place for him after his uncertain start, a sign of the Scot's growing maturity as a manager who had before cut an image as an authoritarian, unbending figure.


And Everton can point to their impressive tally of 50 points being earned without them being awarded a single Premier League penalty - a remarkable statistic and the subject of vigorous debate among their fans.


There have, however, been moments of good luck.


Everton came within an ace of going out of the Uefa Cup to little-known Metalist Kharkiv at the first hurdle, but have flourished since their fortunate survival.


Moyes has not simply continued to ensure they are hard to beat, he has made them highly watchable when in full cry and provided further evidence that he is central to everything at Everton.


He had a "boom and bust" reputation early on at Everton, with seasons of achievement being followed by fallow spells, but this campaign has shown the signs of sustainable progress.


Moyes runs a tight ship at Everton, where players are invariably seen rather than heard and where discipline and team spirit is paramount.


Yakubu thought he could push Moyes by defying his order to return on time from the Africa Cup of Nations, but an £80,000 fine, a fierce dressing down and exclusion from the team put him straight.


Moyes confirmed his authority and to Yakubu's credit, he returned to the side without complaint and with goals.


The Scot is still only 44 and has years ahead of him as a manager, and his gentle nudge about more cash to chairman Kenwright recently suggests he wants to spend them admiring silverware.


And if they can negotiate a way past Fiorentina, Everton may start to think they can add the Uefa Cup to the European Cup Winners' Cup they won in 1985.


Everton now just need to hold their nerve and maintain form to give Liverpool another fight for fourth place - a fight they won in 2005 let's not forget.


Moyes and his players are entering the crucial phase of their campaign, but there is a growing feelign they are up to the task and it is right that recognition is finally heading their way.

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Sums up the season pretty well so far.


Can't help but think though, why are we continuing to look behind us when Chelsea are only 5 points in front. It is far easier being the chasers rather than the chasees (?) and we should be looking onward and upward, not back to the likes of lowly Liverpool.


This is a massive club and we shouldn't "settle" for forth. I hope Moyes is telling his players that 3rd place is in our reach. We still have Chelsea to play at Goodison and that could be a MASSIVE game. We are well overdue a victory against them.



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