Yesterday, for the umpteenth time I watched my favourite ever Premier League game on Chelsea TV –our famous 3-2 victory at Goodison Park, back in December 2006. In my opinion it was the quintessential game of Jose Mourinho’s first tenure at the club. Trailing for the vast majority of the contest, we had to draw upon every ounce of determination and experience and quality to turn the result in our favour. With the scoreline still 2-1 to Everton with 10 minutes left, Mourinho made his final substitution which left us using a 3-4-3 formation, with Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho and Ashley Cole in a back three; Claude Makelele, Wayne Bridge, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard making up a midfield diamond, whist Arjen Robben, Andriy Shevchenko and Didier Drogba up front completed a hilariously attacking formation.
Two stunning long range strikes from Lampard and Drogba, adding to Ballack’s perfect 30 yard free-kick earlier in the half, eventually won us the game, on an afternoon which, looking back, now seems perfectly symbolic of two things in particular 1) Just how good that generation of Chelsea players were when they needed to be, as they come now to the end of their careers and 2) Even when at our very best, games against Everton have never been easy, and more than once it’s taken some truly excellent football from our greatest players to record a victory against the Merseysiders. Last season we struggled to 1-0 defeat away from home and were fortunate to score a last minute winner at Stamford Bridge. Tomorrow’s game against Roberto Martinez’ side should be a fascinatingly close contest, as well as huge indicator of just how good we are and of how much we’ve improved since this time last season.
But while there’s no doubt that Everton have been wonderful since the Spaniard took over, it’s hard to see just where improvement is going to come from this season. Martinez was clearly happy with how his first season went, given he spent the majority of his transfer budget securing players he’d previously had on loan, but now this means if Everton are going to progress, it will have to come from the coach developing this current crop of players – something he doubtlessly has the talent and the motivation to do, but as far as tomorrow is concerned, it looks as though we don’t have so much to worry about, with several key young players unlikely to be in the starting XI.
Ross Barkley is unavailable through injury, and though Steven Naismith has started the season in good goal-scoring form, his movement and positioning in attack is less threatening. John Stones looks a fine young player and could become a regular this year but will probably miss out to the now 36 year old Sylvain Distin tomorrow instead. Romelu Lukaku meanwhile is the biggest signing in his club’s history and will be hugely motivated to score against the club unwilling to give him the chance he felt he deserved; but he remains doubtful with a toe injury.
Other slightly older players in the squad will be looking to improve this year also. Seamus Coleman. James McCarthy and Kevin Mirallas all had impressive first years under Martinez and have all started the season well. Having thrown away leads to draw their first two games would suggest the squad hasn’t quite found top form or fitness just yet. The manager’s senseless substitutions against Arsenal in the latter stages show there may exist some naivety with regards to the club’s standing in the league also. They’re going to have to be sharper and smarter if they want to record points against Chelsea tomorrow.
For the hosts, new signing Mohamed Besic will probably be on the bench again as Gareth Barry continues to look impressive. Steven Pienaar is injured and Christian Atsu obviously can’t play against his parent club, so Scottish winger Aidan McGeady will probably start on the left wing. Up front, both of our former strikers, Lukaku and Samuel Eto’o are fitness doubts but Everton will surely do all they can to ensure the Belgian forward can start the game, with his side’s performance dropping substantially when he was substituted off against Arsenal last week.
For us, I would imagine the back four will remain unchanged. Up against the most attacking right full back in the league, Mourinho will probably want to stick with Cesar Azpilicueta, before finally giving Filipe Luis his debut after the international break. Fabregas, Matic, Oscar and Hazard all seem like sure picks, but with Andre Schurrle suffering from the leg injury he picked up against Leicester; the manager has the option of either bringing in Willian, who impressed as a sub last week, or Ramires, who was ever present in away games against the bigger sides last season. The decision of which Brazilian Mourinho selects could be an interesting sign as to whether he wants to be more ambitious against top sides from now on.
The main selection story for Chelsea however is at centre forward, where a muscular injury looks set to sideline Diego Costa. My opinion is that it makes no sense to risk the Spaniard, especially with an international break this week and with a huge game against Man City in 23 days, having him fully fit for our key games in September has to be the priority. Whilst with Fernando Torres heavily linked with a move to Milan, it seems extremely unlikely he’ll start the game, which means for the first time in over two years, we’ll start with Didier Drogba leading the line. Another last minute winning volley from about 35 yards out on the half turn, as in 2006, would be lovely, I’ll take a simple tap-in or close range header though – even a scrappy own goal would do me.
If we’re to be league champions in May, then we’ll have to become accustomed to winning games without Diego Costa, and though he’ll be missed, Everton have some big absences also, and on the basis of each side’s first two league games of the season, I’d say we looked the fittest and the most in form so far. Both times against Leicester and Arsenal, Everton dropped quite drastically in the last quarter of the game also, meaning another late winner could be possible. As is always the case, our best players will have to be at their best to win the game, but I predict that they’ll turn up and we’ll make it three from three, hopefully with another clean sheet too.