Everton were lucky, very lucky, not to have conceded four goals against West Ham last Saturday; a repeat of that depressing defeat at the hands of West Brom which would have set the alarm bells jangling and the Goodison hierarchy into crisis mode. A first half Frederic Piquionne header which kissed the base of one post and rolled tantalizingly across the goal and a delicious Zavon Hines lobbed shot which just cleared the bar, with Howard beaten all ends up, could so easily have killed off any chance of recovery and sent the Toffees in for their half-time tea and ‘chat’ with David Moyes three goals down. Observers have tended to blame Everton’s ills on the strikers, on a lack of goals, however we are more concerned by a defence which leaks goals with alarming regularity, at least against the league’s lesser lights. Bring on one of the big boys, for the sake of argument let’s say Chelsea, and a sudden transformation takes place; the defence becomes Serie ‘A’ reincarnate, Coleman starts living up to his nickname ‘Ramos’ and Saha slots in a languid long-range beauty in the first five minutes. If the Toffees can raise their collective game yet again and Goodison find its intimidating voice then victory over the FA Cup holders is a real possibility.
One key personnel change might swing this tie Everton’s way. Phil Jagielka will return, now fully fit and rested, to face the rejuvenated Didier Drogba. Jags and the Drog are old sparring partners, they clearly relish playing each other and it is no secret that the Ivorian holds the Everton defender in high regard; the Chelsea striker has the physical edge but Jagielka’s pace and the timing of his tackles makes for a fascinating duel. Drogba has scored seven goals in ten appearances against the Toffees but last season couldn’t get on the winning side as Chelsea went down 5-4 on ‘aggregate’ in the league.
The other issue will be whether to retain the two striker approach, which worked against Spurs and Liverpool but flopped against the Hammers. Assuming Saha is fit, and given his superb goal scoring record against Chelsea – four goals in his last four appearances – he is as they say, a nailed-on certainty to start. Anichebe is likely to miss out with a groin strain so Beckford – who scored a lovely leveller in the league encounter at Stamford Bridge – should partner the Frenchman, tasked with putting himself about and pressuring the strangely tentative and clearly slowing John Terry with his raw pace and aggression. Beckford is gradually settling into life in the Premier League, however we think he would benefit by following the unambiguous advice once given by the Bolton Wanderers coach to a young Nat Lofthouse, “You can do three things. You can run, shoot and head. You couldn’t trap a bag of washing. So don’t get fancy.”
Much will depend on Arteta and Fellaini feeding Coleman and Baines with good ball so that they can pressure the Chelsea full backs Cole and Bosingwa and keep them busy, rather than allowing these fast and dangerous players to get forward and overload the Everton rearguard. This high profile 4th round FA Cup tie, against the holders, with a worldwide TV audience, would be a really good time for Mikel Arteta to rediscover his lost form. We want to see Arteta the playmaker; a quick-footed Arteta, fast of thought, driving his Everton forward, not the Arteta who shuffles the ball sideways like some half-baked version of that late Chelsea employee Ray Wilkins.
EVERTON XI (4-4-2): Howard; Neville ©, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Coleman, Fellaini, Arteta, Osman; Beckford, Saha
Substitutes from: Mucha, Rodwell, Bilyaletdinov, Hibbert, Heitinga, Gueye, Baxter, Silva
CHELSEA XI (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry ©, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard; Anelka, Drogba, Malouda
Substitutes: Turnbull, McEachran, Mikel, Ferreira, Bruma, Kalou, Sturridge
Referee: Howard Webb
Kick-off: 1230 GMT, Saturday 29 January, Goodison Park