Everton vs Arsenal

, 5 April, 0comments  |  Jump to most recent
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If Roberto Martinez's first season in charge has been permeated by a feeling that his Everton team have actually under-achieved; that they haven't racked up some of the wins that their performances have deserved — be it because of a lack of firepower, a missing killer instinct or key injuries; that the chance of finishing fourth had slipped away over the course of four disappointing away games between 20th January and 22nd February; then this Sunday's massive game against Arsenal offers a second chance and opportunity. A big opportunity.

Victory might not immediately deliver Champions League qualification for the first time in nine years but, being a sixth-successive Premier League win, it would further establish a crucial commodity that has helped propel the Blues back into contention for the top four: momentum. And, with Arsenal having lost a good deal of theirs as they have faded from a title race they impressively led for so long earlier in the campaign, momentum could prove key for Everton with just six matches remaining after this weekend.

More than further establishing the two teams' respective momentum, victory would bring the Blues to within a point of the Gunners with a game in hand, increasing the pressure on Arsene Wenger's men to come through over a highly favourable run-in that pits them against teams almost entirely in the bottom half of the table — the one that isn't, Newcastle, may as well be — while Martinez's team face Manchester City, Manchester United and a potentially tricky trip to Southampton.

Even so, a win for Everton would put a top-four finish in their own hands — seven more consecutive victories to finish the campaign would be highly unlikely but Martinez's team will know that they would have to beat Crystal Palace in their game in hand, then merely match Arsenal's results, and they would secure that final Champions League qualification place... assuming, of course, the unthinkable doesn't happen and Man Utd win this year's trophy!

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First things first, of course, and that means focusing on a fixture that Everton haven't won for seven years. Indeed, of the other six ever-presents of the Premier League era, Arsenal are second only to Manchester United as the Blues' least favourite opponent, restricting to us just five wins and 27 points over the past two decades.

Martinez's cause is aided somewhat by the fact that Wenger comes with a side depleted of some key players like Mezut Ozil, Lorent Koscielny, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere. Aaron Ramsey, another recent injury absentee, is expected to be included in the squad but a lack of match sharpness makes him an unlikely starter.

Of course, Arsenal have plenty of other weaponry in their, well, arsenal, with two potential defensive rocks in Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesaker, inventive midfield threats like Thomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla, and danger men up front like Olivier Giroud (a two-goal scorer in that cup tie) and Lukas Podolski.

They have shown themselves to be fallible in recent weeks, though, losing at Stoke a month ago, getting thrashed by Chelsea and then dropping two points at home to Swansea City prior to last weekend's hard-fought home draw with Manchester City. Notably for a Blues side that Evertonians will be hoping will be fired up for this one, the Gunners can be rattled and lose their stomach for the fight in the face of an opposition side bent on first dominating them and then putting goals past them. That hasn't been Everton's modus operandi often this season but signs of a killer instinct have emerged in their last two games where they comfortably beat Newcastle and Fulham away from home.

Martinez's starting line-up is going to be an intriguing one and not easy to predict. He has opted for a rotation policy for his attacking midfielders lately in an effort to keep them fresh for just this kind of game but kept the same line-up at Craven Cottage last weekend as that which had won so impressively at St James' Park five days before. It was his three substitutes, however, only one of whom saw any action at Newcastle, who provided the catalyst for victory over Fulham and all three of Steven Naismith, Aiden McGeady and Kevin Mirallas made cases for their inclusion this weekend.

There is also a question mark over Ross Barkley who was withdrawn at half-time last Sunday with a calf injury. His manager insists he should be fit to play, and Martinez put him straight into the starting XI in the cup at the Emirates after seeing how well he played against Arsenal at the same venue in December, so he may keep faith with him again.

It's possible that Gerard Deulofeu may drop to the bench and be used as a weapon in the second half, given his preference for attack over tracking back, and that would provide an opening for Mirallas or McGeady. Leon Osman could also be preferred for his discipline and experience.

At the back, Phil Jagielka is unlikely to play due to him being eased back from a hamstring injury and that will give John Stones another opportunity to enhance his burgeoning reputation as one of the most promising homegrown talents in the Premier League. The 19-year-old deputised for the captain in the FA Cup tie at the Emirates last month in a defence that ended up shipping four goals so he will need to be more mindful of his positioning and the threat posed by Arsenal's pace and movement on the counter.

A precious win would provide an enormous injection of belief for Everton in their quest to crack that glass ceiling and finish in the top four. It is unquestionably going to take a big performance from the players, backed by equally committed support from the stands. Goodison needs to become a cauldron, a wall of noise. Three points won't decide anything immediately in the Champions League race but the Blues can prove this weekend that they are worthy of that lofty goal, that they belong among England's elite. Time to make a statement of intent.

Kick off: Sunday, 1:30pm
Referee: Martin Atkinson

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