Familiar foes Everton are Manchester City’s biggest obstacle to Premier League glory

David Silva's return from injury and Gareth Barry's enforced absence could make the midfield a decisive area
Gareth Barry, pictured during a Premier League match against Arsenal on April 6, 2014, is not eligible for Everton in Saturday's match against his parent club, Manchester City. Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Gareth Barry, pictured during a Premier League match against Arsenal on April 6, 2014, is not eligible for Everton in Saturday's match against his parent club, Manchester City. Simon Bellis / Sportimage

By the end of his reign, Roberto Mancini had taken to rolling his eyes in melodramatic, mock disgust at the mere mention of the club. “Everton!” he would exclaim.

The exaggerated reaction betrayed a serious point. Everton were the scourge of Mancini’s Manchester City.

Their iron will was never more apparent than when the nouveau riche arrived at Goodison Park. Relations between the blue halves of Merseyside and Manchester deteriorated in City’s lengthy, fractious pursuit of Joleon Lescott in 2009 and, while that was before Mancini’s time, he suffered as a result. David Moyes and his Evertonian loyalists took particular pleasure in proving money could not buy victory in their backyard.

Mancini had the wrong sort of 100 percent record at Goodison Park – played four, lost four – so perhaps it is as well that City venture west under another manager. Manuel Pellegrini likes to insist history is irrelevant whenever sides reconvene. The notion of a bogey team seems anathema to him.

“I think the past is the past,” the Chilean said. “This is the present. We have to play now and I hope we can win at Goodison Park.”

In any case, Pellegrini’s only experiences of Everton are positive. His City inflicted Roberto Martinez’s first league defeat as the Merseysiders’ manager in a magnificently entertaining October game. His Villarreal won a play-off against Everton in 2005 to secure a place in the Uefa Champions League group stages. Everton’s exile from the European elite will be extended if City win today: it would guarantee Arsenal fourth place.

There are, of course, greater considerations for Pellegrini and his men. Victory would send them to the top of the Premier League and mean that home wins against the struggling duo of Aston Villa and West Ham would render them champions. If the title race is actually a steeplechase, one hurdle is rather bigger than the others.

“Everton will always be a very difficult team in any stage of the season,” Pellegrini said. “They play every well. Roberto is doing a very good job, the same way as he did before at Wigan. He is playing for [a place in the] Champions League, he is playing for Europa League and we are sure we are going to have a very tough game there.”

So the statistics would suggest. The bare facts are that City have only won once in 15 trips in Goodison Park. A rivalry became strangely one-sided during Moyes’s 11 years at the helm. Everton had a habit of recording against-all-odds wins at the Etihad Stadium – in 2005, when they were bottom of the league, or 2010, when temperatures reached minus-9°C – and many a City supporter breathed a sigh of relief when Tim Cahill joined New York Red Bulls. One of their tormentors had left English shores. Another, Steven Pienaar, is injured. A third, Lescott, was bought by City after defender turned destroyer against them. Yet newer nemeses have tended to emerge.

City go to Goodison with questions to answer. After only taking one point in away games at the top four, can they win at the venue of the fifth-place club? And is their task made tougher by the rebranding of Everton? Goodison’s cramped confines, its narrow pitch, its evening kick-offs that created a more intense atmosphere: they all suited Moyes’s brand of football, high on intensity, urgency and defensive solidity. Martinez and Pellegrini, fellow footballing aesthetes, favour a different style of play. This promises to be a more open game, especially since on-loan Gareth Barry, the sentry positioned in front of the Everton back four, is ineligible to face his parent club.

It could shift Everton’s emphasis still further toward attack. City, too, could be more potent, since David Silva has recovered from his ankle injury, presumably to displace the more defensive James Milner. Martinez is likely to use Leon Osman in place of Barry.

While Moyes’s formula for beating City tended to include a clean sheet, Everton’s last decisive intervention in a title race involved a goal glut. Had Moyes’s men not drawn 4-4 at Old Trafford in April 2012, then City would not have overhauled their neighbours. Everton were City’s unlikely allies that day.

Now they resume their familiar role as an impediment. They are the biggest obstacle to glory.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: May 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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