Sunday, May 11, 2008

Look to the future

Everton 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

A couple of months ago, it looked as though our season really could come down to the last game. Thankfully it didn't. Our recent record at Goodison Park is dreadful, and today's showing did nothing to improve it. Matters weren't helped by the fact that for Everton it was still a meaningful fixture - they kicked off knowing a point or better would fend off Villa's challenge in the race for 5th place and UEFA Cup football next term.

The recent stability of the side was unsettled by the absences of Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins, Geremi and ASBO, with Andy Carroll, Charles N'Zogbia, Damien Duff and (groan) Alan Smith coming in to replace them.

Carroll had a decent early opportunity saved by Tim Howard, but it was N'Zogbia - in all probability making his final appearance for the club (though sincerely I hope not) - who carried our biggest threat, his crosses causing consternation in the penalty area. Ex-Smog Yakubu was the Toffees' danger man, and, having already shot wide when well placed, he capitalised on Duff's stupid foul by directing his header from the resulting Manuel Fernandes free-kick beyond Steve Harper.

Harper was definitely the busier 'keeper in the first period, saving brilliantly from Leon Osman and also preventing Victor Anichebe from repeating the trick of last year's fixture, when he plundered a couple. But, for all that pressure, N'Zogbia came close to scoring with a free-kick, and was instrumental when the equaliser did come, two minutes into the second half. His mazy run into the area was brought to an abrupt halt by Joseph Yobo's leg, and ref Peter Walton pointed to the spot. Owen's penalty was hardly decisive, but slipped underneath Timmy Tourettes anyway.

For a while, we weathered the subsequent storm, Harper diverting a pair of Fernandes free-kicks away from danger, but with 20 minutes left we found ourselves behind again, Joleon Lescott rounding off an impressive season by guiding home a far-post volley. The quality of the finishing was again high, but again the free-kick was given away needlessly, this time by Little Saint Mick, who compounded his error by absent-mindedly giving Fernandes time and space on the edge of the area to pick out the central defender.

Osman, who had been a menace to our back four all afternoon with his running, was then felled by Steven Taylor's leg in the area and Yakubu sent Harper the wrong way from the spot with his club's first penalty of the season to ensure we left Merseyside empty-handed. There can't really be too many complaints about the result, either - though we can certainly gripe about the performance of a certain Mr A Smith, as anonymous as his surname would suggest.

It's hard to believe that, after the horrible season we've had, our 12th place finish actually represents progress on last term, when we ended up in 13th. There's obviously a huge amount of work to be done in the summer, something that the generally positive end to the campaign can't mask. King Kev was spot on in his post-match comments: "If ever we needed a team to look at we were in the right place today. If Everton can finish fifth, why can't we? We have a bigger stadium and more fans, but they all play for each other and that's the spirit we don't have. If we can get that with the players we've got there's no reason we can't challenge for that spot next season." If anyone was concerned about Kev's lack of optimism and ambition after the Chelsea game (and I'm not joining in with the media reports that Mike Ashley was, I should add), then that should be reassuring. Interesting too that there was no mention of money - it might be a matter of about nurturing and developing team spirit, rather than (by implication) spending lots of cash. Presumably that means we can expect to see the back of ASBO, then? Hopefully he might take Smith with him...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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