Saturday evening’s televised Premier League clash at Goodison Park pits David Moyes’ Everton against Tony Pulis and his Stoke City side.
When these two teams came head-to-head earlier this season, quite literally in the case of Marouane Fellaini and Ryan Shawcross, a bruising encounter ended in a 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium. For the home side, who still harbour faint hopes of a place in the top four, the propensity of tied games has almost certainly turned what promised to be a fantastic season in the early months into one where their expectations of finishing just outside the European qualification places are likely to be met.
If the Toffees are to make a successful late season spurt for fourth place the game with the Potters is a must win. Having blown a glorious opportunity for a tilt at silverware when they crashed out of the FA Cup, they went some way to restoring pride when running out convincing winners over reigning champions, Manchester City to renew hope of a possible challenge for a Champions League spot.
The only down side from the win over City is the loss through suspension of Fellaini and Steven Pienaar who both miss Everton’s next two fixtures. The absence of two of the Blues’ most creative elements will severely hamper Moyes’ efforts to threaten Arsenal and Tottenham’s race for fourth place.
Without the extra cutting edge provided by their missing midfielders, Stoke City will present the toughest of nuts to crack. Pulis has developed an obstinate defensive side full of brute strength and ruggedness. Having begun the season in miserly fashion, the turn of the year brought an uncharacteristic spell of generosity as goals were leaked. However, in recent weeks, Stoke have returned to their former frugality at the back.
This game does not promise a glut of goals and neither does it have the taste buds tingling for those hoping for fast flowing football. The likely outcome would be a goalless draw or a home victory by a solitary strike.
Meanwhile, in the build-up to Saturday’s match, Everton chairman Bill Kenwright raised his head above the media parapet for the first time since their crushing FA Cup loss at home to Wigan Athletic to wax lyrical about his manager for the umpteenth occasion. In an interview with Sky Sports News he reiterated the club would speak with Moyes in the summer over the uncertain issue of a new contract as the Scotsman dithers about whether his future lies on Merseyside or elsewhere.
He also confirmed, somewhat unconvincingly, that the club had never sold a player that Moyes himself had not signed off on and that there would be no further sales of Everton’s most prized playing assets. For those hoping the Scotsman will still be in charge at Goodison next year they will be praying Kenwright can be quite a bit more persuasive in his contract negotiations.