EVERTON V ARSENAL

Season's start brings relief for duo

August 14, 2009
By Chris Murphy

ESPN's first Premier League offering pits fourth against fifth from last term but both sides will do well to conjure a repeat performance in 2009/10.

David Moyes v Arsene Wenger

David Moyes and Arsene Wenger
GettyImagesDavid Moyes and Arsene Wenger

Ask Moyes or Wenger if they summered well and the odds on receiving a frosty glare in return are high. Certainly, neither manager would have elected to play each other this early given the choice. Everton fear Arsenal's slick interplay and ability to carve teams open, Wenger is wary that the Toffees' tireless work ethic can wear down his young charges. Both managers have lost players and crave new faces. Arrivals between now and the end of the transfer window are essential.

David Moyes goes into the game with the stench of Manchester City's new-found wealth permeating the club. Joleon Lescott wants to move, and given the excellent Phil Jagielka is likely to be out until Christmas, the defensive solidity that went a long way to ensuring a fifth place finish last season is already under threat. Shorn of Yakubu and Mikel Arteta for most of last season the forays of Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini and the astute loan recruitment of Jo, also saw the Toffees make the FA Cup final. A repeat performance in league and cup this year is a very big ask.

Moyes will be hoping the aerial threat of that three-pronged attack will test Arsenal's unreliable back line while the probing forward runs of Steven Pienaar will also be crucial if the absence of Arteta is to be underwritten. A large dose of Everton's battling spirit will be needed for an opening day win.

Arsene Wenger knows all about Everton's grit and determination, having succumbed to it in previous seasons. As ever, enormous faith is placed in his young stock, especially after seasoned Premier League campaigners Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure left for Manchester City, the side many believe is most likely to annex Arsenal from the top four.

Cesc Fabregas will again be the fulcrum of everything Arsenal do. They will always create going forward with the likes of Arshavin, Eduardo, Van Persie and Walcott to call on, but defence is still seen as a weakness. Wenger's faith is planted in the untested Thomas Vermaelen, recruited from Ajax, and the unreliable William Gallas. Wenger must pray the Gunners hit their straps early, put Everton under pressure and match their spirit to the last. A win at Goodison will do much to inspire confidence for the campaign ahead.

Tim Cahill v Cesc Fabregas

The skipper's importance to Arsenal belies his 22 years. More of a focal point than ever after Toure and Adebayor departed he must stay fit and firing if Arsenal are to claim another top four finish. At Goodison Park most moves the Gunners make will come through him. Allowed license to roam forward Fabregas will again look to link up with Arshavin and Walcott down the flanks. As much as Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill like to maraud forward themselves, an eye must be kept on their opposite number and his tendency to drift into dangerous positions.

Cahill's influence on Everton cannot be underestimated, in fact, the only problem the Aussie midfielder gives Moyes is how to utilise him effectively in the same side as Fellaini, given their similarities. Even their Premier League record was identical last season – eight goals in 28 games. Neither gives an inch on the field and discipline can be a problem; Fellaini was booked on average once every three games last year, while Cahill received three bookings and one red card.

Tough tackling will be required to put the Gunners off their stride but losing a man makes their passing all the more potent. Cahill will also be a threat in the air from crosses and set pieces and he comes into the game in goalscoring mood having notched two for Australia against Ireland on Wednesday night. Arsenal will be well aware that a quiet Cahill usually means a quiet Everton.

Joleon Lescott v Robin van Persie

GettyImagesRobin Van Persie battles with Joleon Lescott

How will the Goodison Park faithful react to their wantaway star? The timing of Lescott's transfer request left a bitter taste in the mouth and while Toffees' fans know he is crucial to repelling a fluent Gunners side, it will prove hard not to question if his mind is fully focused on the job in hand. Lescott's aerial prowess is well documented but only during set pieces at both ends of the pitch will it be required. Arsenal's penchant for carpet football means positional sense, dealing with runners from deep and an ability to sniff out danger are much more meaningful attributes. One thing is for sure, should it prove to be his final game in a blue shirt he will want to leave on a positive note.

Lescott's immediate priority will be to shackle Van Persie. As the spearhead of Arsenal's attack his hold and link up play will determine their attacking threat. Lescott will be less concerned about his height and more about closing him down anywhere within range, given his wand of a left foot. He must do it fairly too, as Arsenal have a wealth of free-kick specialists who can hit the target from anything up to 35 yards out. Van Persie averages more than a goal every other game in the last three Premier League seasons, but in that time he has only started 54. How Wenger could do with the 26-year-old staying fit for a whole campaign.

Louis Saha v William Gallas

Wenger's pursuit of Fulham's Brede Hangeland underlines a desire to bolster his defence, and his concern that the questionable temperament of William Gallas remains the focal point of their back line. How his partnership with Thomas Vermaelen begins should have a large bearing on their season. The aerial prowess of Fellaini, Cahill, Lescott and Saha will provide the Dutch defender with a stiff test of his Premier League credentials. Everton will look to pepper the penalty area with crosses and high balls to test Vermaelen's mettle and Gallas will have to take the lead as organiser-in-chief. Assured full-backs Gael Clichy and Sagna will assist but direction has to come from the middle. A clean sheet will be a considerable achievement, and an unlikely one.

Though Jo possesses greater height, Louis Saha is no mug in the air either, and he should get plenty of opportunity to prove the fact with balls flying into the box. Unusually for the injury-prone Saha he has featured in all Everton's pre-season outings, and is finding the net regularly. As any Manchester United fan will testify Saha remains as good as anyone in the Premier League on his day, his goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup final an indication that his instincts remain intact. Just as Van Persie provides the link for the Gunners, Saha will be expected to retain possession long enough to bring Everton's midfield into play in the final third. If he is regularly afforded a sight of goal Arsenal will suffer.

STATZONE:

• These two have twice met on the opening day of the Premier League season, first in 2003/4 when Arsenal beat Everton 2-0 at Highbury, and again the following season when Arsenal ran out 4-1 winners at Goodison Park.
• Lescott in the Premier League 08/09: Played: 36, Won: 16, Clean Sheets: 16, Goals: 4.
• Arsenal at Goodison Park in the Premier League: Won: 7, Drawn: 6, Lost 4.
• Biggest wins at Goodison Park: 1958/59: Everton 1-6 Arsenal. 1985/86: Everton 6-1 Arsenal.
• Top scorers in 08/09: Everton: Fellaini and Cahill, 8. Arsenal: Van Persie, 11.
• Arsenal have only played away from home four times on the opening day in 17 Premier League seasons, winning two, losing one and drawing one.