Football: Everton intent on displaying hidden talents

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The Independent Online
FIRST, AN apology. In recent weeks these columns might have implied watching Everton was akin to watching paint peel and that only those with long pockets, tedious lives or severe inclinations towards self-harm would pay money to gain entrance to Goodison Park.

It has since been brought to our attention that the team is brimming with entertainers, their strikers can shoot straight and that they are dripping with goals. We apologise for any misunderstanding our earlier comments may have caused.

There, you never expected to read that this season, and even Everton's most blue-eyed supporter must be fearing that the events of the past eight days are a mirage in a desolate desert of scoreless draws but, if ever a team illustrated that a week in politics is considerably shorter than one in football, they have.

Seven goals (two in the FA Cup, five against Middlesbrough) have transformed the mood in half of Merseyside and Everton travel to Leeds today in hope rather than trepidation of scoring successive wins in the Premiership for the first time since January last year.

"Defensively, we've been quite solid as a unit, especially at home," their goalkeeper, Thomas Myhre, said, "but we've not scored many goals. We've needed a bit of fortune to get the right result. Our players are good enough not to be in the position in the table we're in."

The transformation has come partly due to the abandonment of the over- rigid 3-5-2 formation that too easily led to five men at the back, and to the re-emergence of Nick Barmby. He has scored four goals in Everton's last five games and, operating on the left, is alternatively drifting to bring much-needed width or even more desired striking options. "His form over the last few games has been tremendous," Walter Smith, his manager, said of a player who has not always justified his pounds 5.75m fee. "He is now performing to his full potential."

Barmby's last two goals were against his former club Middlesbrough, who are falling so fast that they are every bit as anxious as clubs far below them. Today they meet Tottenham at the Riverside in a match proving that attitude rather than points can be more important.

Spurs are a point behind today's opponents, but whereas their season appears to be on the up on the back of reaching the Worthington Cup final Boro, who have not won so far this year, are becoming increasingly gloomy.

"We had a fantastic start to the season," their goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer said, "but we've slipped away in recent weeks and we need to get back on track and climb the league again." Too right they do.

Of the Premiership leaders, Arsenal appear to have the most comfortable fixture of the weekend, a home game against Leicester who have alarms of their own after slipping into the bottom eight.

The Double winners emerged from their test at Old Trafford in midweek content that they had stopped a potential eight-point gap emerging between themselves and Manchester United. The Gunners now embark on a run of seven games against clubs at 10th place or below, so they have it in their hands to build the momentum they achieved last spring.

Dennis Bergkamp is available after his one-match ban but his manager, Arsene Wenger, was so impressed by Nwankwo Kanu on his Premiership debut that he suddenly has an embarrassment of riches up front. "You could see from the start that Kanu has a great talent," he said. Bergkamp on the bench? It could happen.

Manchester United travel to Coventry and a ground which gave Alex Ferguson an unhappy end to 1997. His team were leading 2-1 with four minutes to go when Darren Huckerby took flight to earn the Sky Blues an unlikely 3-2 win. This time United arrive at Highfield Road with an 11-match unbeaten run and with the potential to use Ryan Giggs again as he returns from a hamstring injury. "The team is playing well and the spirit is great," Ferguson said. "It's just a matter of getting our heads down and concentrating."

Spare a thought for Coventry's Bosnian centre-back Muhamed Konjic, who made his full debut against a rampant Alan Shearer in a 4-1 defeat at Newcastle and now faces the prospect of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, who have the little matter of 40 goals between them. And someone told him it was easy money in the Premiership...

Ron Atkinson would not agree with that. Nottingham Forest were massacred 8-1 by United two weeks ago and the team they face today are the second highest scorers on their travels, Chelsea. A Forest win against the Premiership's second-placed side is unlikely. But impossible? When Everton can score five, nothing is that any more.