After another season of ‘punching above their weight’, which saw David Moyes guide his side to a second consecutive fifth place finish and reach the FA Cup Final, many people within the game were beginning to sit up and take notice of Everton.
It was difficult not to take notice throughout the summer with the Toffees involved in a transfer saga to rival that of Cristiano Ronaldo. With their multi-billionaire backers, Manchester City seemed to be linked with everybody throughout the transfer window. Manage, Mark Hughes made no secret of his desire to take Everton centre-half, Joleon Lescott, down the M62 to Eastlands. After standing firm all summer insisting that none of his star players were going anywhere, Moyes finally agreed to sell Lescott on for a fee believed to be in the region of £22m.
The Scotsman’s stubbornness to let go of a key defender came at a price, however. On the opening day of the season Everton played host to Arsenal at Goodison Park. Arsenal are probably the team the Blues are most likely to flag down in their quest to break into the ‘Top Four’, so this match was seen as a perfect opportunity to test the Goodison outfit's skills against one of their close rivals.
What followed was the Blues’ worst ever defeat on the opening day of a campaign. A mixture of Arsenal’s superiority and Everton's abysmal defending resulted in the visitors romping to a 6-1 demolition. It was all too easy to put two and two together and blame the defeat on the Lescott transfer saga. Granted, the want-away defender was poor, but so was every other player in blue that day.
The time had come to let Lescott move on, and that defeat was to be his last game in an Everton shirt. Moyes moved quickly to replace him and soon drafted in Frenchman Sylvain Distin from Portsmouth. He also brought in a host of established internationals to bolster his squad in the shape of Dinijar Bilyaletdinov, Johnny Heitinga and Lucas Neill. Manchester City forward, Jo was also brought back to Goodison on a loan basis.
The next league outing was a trip to Premier League newcomers Burnley. The Blues were outplayed from start to finish and were deservedly beaten 1-0. It seemed the blue half of Merseyside was in for a long, hard campaign and the pre-season optimism was rapidly fading.
What followed, however, was qualification for the Europa League first round. The Toffees saw off Czech Republic outfit Sigma Olomouc in impressive fashion. The main objective now was to take the solid European form and build up some momentum in the league. A narrow 2-1 victory over Wigan seemed to have boosted confidence, only for Everton to lose out to Fulham by the same score line the next week.
That defeat left Moyes’ men in the bottom three as they had once again come into a new season totally unprepared. However, two wins and a draw in the league against Blackburn, Portsmouth and Stoke respectively resulted in a climb to the top half of the table. Those results, coupled with two impressive victories in Europe against AEK Athens and BATE Borisov, and a 4-0 thrashing of Hull City in the league Cup, had gone a long way to restoring some faith in the Toffees.
The most consistent performer so far has undoubtedly been promising midfielder Jack Rodwell, who has used Phil Neville’s injury to his advantage and shown Moyes exactly what he is capable of. Louis Saha continues to grab the goals and if he can stay fit for the whole season, he could well reach the 20 league goals barrier.
With the new signings fitting in superbly, and the likes of Mikel Arteta, Phil Jagielka and Yakubu soon to be back in regular action, things are looking up for Everton. If these players making their comeback can find top form as soon as possible there is no reason why the Blues can’t put this indifferent start to the season behind them and continue to challenge with the game's big spenders, both domestically and in Europe.
By Gary Maiden, Sports Reporter
A very bad start (shields_t, Flickr); Louis Saha celebrates a goal against Blackburn (cn174, Flickr)