The FourFourTwo Preview: Everton vs Arsenal
Everton's biggest league game since 2005. Goodison will be rocking...
Forget the FA Cup quarter-finals, League Cup semis and European 'glory nights' in the last 64 of the UEFA Cup – it's been close to a decade since Everton's famous old ground hosted a game as important as Sunday's.
- Fulham 1-3 Everton (Prem)
- Newcastle 0-3 Everton (Prem)
- Everton 3-2 Swansea (Prem)
- Everton 2-1 Cardiff (Prem)
- Arsenal 4-1 Everton (FAC)
- Arsenal 1-1 Man City (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-2 Swansea (Prem)
- Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal (Prem)
- Spurs 0-1 Arsenal (Prem)
- Bayern 1-1 Arsenal (CL)
Here's a reminder of what's at stake: if the Toffees beat fourth-placed Arsenal they will move to within a point of the Gunners, with a superior goal difference and a game in hand. Lose or draw, and Roberto Martinez's men will instead be looking over the shoulders in the, er, race to claim the consolation prize of Europa League qualification.
As football buzz-phrases at this time of the year go, "gaining momentum" is right there with "squeaky bum" and "one game at a time, Geoff". Right now, nowhere has more momentum than Merseyside. While Everton's city rivals make a late surge for the top prize, the Toffees have won five on the bounce, seeing them leapfrog Tottenham to become genuine top-four contenders.
It was 2005 when Everton last finished in the Champions League places – a harsh play-off draw against a fine Villarreal side costing them a spot in the group stages – and should Martinez succeed in achieving a top-four finish in his first season it would be a remarkable achievement – "a football miracle", according to the man himself – that would even trump his FA Cup success with Wigan last year.
The confidence running through Martinez's squad was clear to see at Fulham last weekend, with no hint of panic from the visitors after Felix Magath's side equalised with just 19 minutes left. Strength in depth and a lack of alternative options from the bench has long been Everton's Achilles heel, but the introduction of Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith gave the Toffees a second wind, a late goal from each of the subs seeing Everton to the three points. As goalkeeper Tom Howard said this week: "We have been in situations over the last five or six years where in the second half, a team brings on another red-hot player and you're the ones thinking 'holy cow'. But now we have the ability to do that. That gives you a spark."
Everton and Arsenal last met just four weeks ago in the FA Cup, the Gunners winning 4-1 at at the Emirates. But Arsene Wenger's side have stuttered in the league since then, the low point being the 6-0 trouncing to Chelsea on a day when the north Londoners had hoped to celebrate Wenger 1,000th game in charge.
Arsenal did restore some pride in last weekend's home draw to Manchester City, but such are their injury woes this is a side that now looks desperate to get over the finishing line, having won just three of their last 10 Premier League matches (W3 D4 L3).
They still have the FA Cup, of course – and with it a shot of a first trophy in nine years – but while some Gooners might disagree, Wenger will need no reminding from those in the boardroom that reaching the Champions League for a 17th successive season is his primary aim between now and May 11.
It will be touch-and-go whether Ross Barkley will recover in time for Everton after a calf problem picked up against Fulham. "He is such a powerful boy that he coped with the knock well but it became a problem once his body got cold," said Martinez. "But he's such a quick healer and a young man so we hope he is going to recover in time for Sunday." Phil Jagielka (hamstring) and Stephen Pienaar (knee) are close to full fitness, but are not expected to be rushed back.
Missing from the away dressing room will be [deep breath] Laurent Koscielny (calf), Nacho Monreal (foot), Aaron Ramsey (thigh strain, hopes to be back for next weekend's FA Cup semi) and Mesut Ozil (hamstring, out for at least another fortnight), while more serious casualties Jack Wilshere (broken foot) and Theo Walcott (knee) are targeting the World Cup for their returns. Even longer-term absentee Abou Diaby could return from his cruciate knee ligament injury soon, however.
Key battle: Gareth Barry vs Mathieu Flamini
It might not be the most glamorous match-up at Goodison, but expect the two bustling midfielders to play a crucial role in deciding the outcome.
Barry has received plenty of love from Evertonians since his loan switch from Manchester City last year, the club's No.18 proving a popular pick in Toffees fans' player-of-the-season vote thanks to his consistently composed displays in front of the back four. Now 33, Barry has been revitalised this term, and was as steady as ever at Craven Cottage under the watchful eye of Roy Hodgson, completing 54 of his 63 passes as he kick-started a number of attacks from deep. The England manager has insisted there's still hope of Barry making the plane for Brazil, even if the midfielder said he'd "go and book my holidays" after missing out on the squad for the recent friendly against Denmark.
As for Arsenal's midfield enforcer, the draw against City was his best display since rejoining the Gunners last year. As well as regularly breaking down Manuel Pellegrini's side, the Frenchman's relentless running in the second half was rewarded with a rare goal to see his side to a point. Ahead of Flamini on the pitch, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky benefitted hugely from his dogged display, and as such it would be a surprise to see Wenger return to the set-up he deployed at Chelsea, which saw Flamini start on the bench.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Arsenal 4-1 Everton (FAC, Mar 14)
- Arsenal 1-1 Everton (PL, Dec 13)
- Arsenal 0-0 Everton (PL, Apr 13)
- Everton 1-1 Arsenal (PL, Nov 12)
- Everton 0-1 Arsenal (PL, Mar 12)
Wenger and Arsenal big-wigs are long-term admirers of Martinez, with the affable Spaniard a fellow believer of free-flowing, passing football alongside some shrewd scouting. His fine work at Goodison will only lead to more speculation that he'll succeed Wenger at the Emirates. "Martinez has a positive philosophy," said Wenger of the Spaniard at the tail end of last season. "Above all, he tries to play good football. That for me, is a good basis to go forward and move higher up. He looks to master the situations well."
High praise, indeed, and we all know managerial legends get to pick their own successors, right? But don't panic yet, Evertonians. Wenger is believed to be close to finally signing a new contract, which is expected to keep the 64-year-old at Arsenal for another two years.
Facts and figures
- The last 5 meetings between these teams have all seen fewer than 3 goals, and the last 3 have all finished as draws
- Everton have lost just 2 of their last 21 home games against top-half teams and have won 7 of their last 12 hosting top-six sides
- Arsenal have lost 7 of their last 10 against top-half teams
- 9 of Arsenal’s 12 away games against top-six sides since 2011/12 have produced more than 2 goals
9 of Everton’s last 13 home games have seen at least 3 goals
Best Bet: Everton (0) Handicap @ 1.80
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With so much at stake, a nervy 90 minutes to finish level – much to the relief of Wenger. 1-1