Everton's extraordinary injury time home league defeat to Aston Villa two months back appeared to confirm David Moyes' side fall from grace but ahead of Villa's return in the FA Cup tomorrow the Everton manager was able to reflect yesterday on why the season's most exciting climax was the catalyst for his club's resurgence.
"It wasn't even us saying 'what a game' – it affected the public [everywhere] so you can imagine how it affected us," Moyes said. "I can understand Aston Villa using it as a real platform and a positive thing [Martin O'Neill's side have lost once in all competitions since] but it was the opposite for us."
For Moyes, three players have been integral to the turnaround for Everton, who had mustered a solitary home win before that December evening: Joleon Lescott, Mikel Arteta and Tim Howard. All have since regained last season's form and none more so than Lescott, whose leadership qualities Moyes was questioning at the time. "He has shown real maturity I've not seen before," Moyes said. "In the past he might have got a bit upset if he was moved from left-back to left centre-back. He is now mature, relaxed and comfortable about the situation."
Moyes did not cite Phil Jagielka – the 26-year-old's consistency ran through Everton faltering autumn too, albeit it was his error that handed Villa one of their goals in the league game. An equally uncharacteristic Jagielka error for England against Spain in midweek handed the opposition a goal.
"I was the first person to phone him and tell him he had made a mistake," Moyes said. "We don't hide here. I thought he bailed England out twice leading up to that. Maybe in the opening 30 minutes Phil was England's best player."
Moyes' injury problems may prompt a recall for Victor Anichebe and see fourth-round hero Dan Gosling back in the fray. But the eight clean sheets since the Villa defeat led Moyes to the brave assertion that his side have achieved something more remarkable than Manchester United's record 13 clean sheets. "With respect, it will be tougher for Everton than Manchester United," he said.
Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, is to make his feelings known to his England counterpart Fabio Capello after expressing "surprise" at striker Emile Heskey starting the friendly international with Spain when not fully fit.
Heskey suffered an Achilles injury at Blackburn last weekend but was declared fit enough by the England medical staff to play after reporting for Wednesday's game in Seville. He suffered a reaction and has been unable to train since returning to Villa and is regarded as a major doubt for Sunday's game at Goodison Park.
O'Neill said: "Emile has aggravated his Achilles. I was surprised he started. He came off against Blackburn last weekend. Emile would have wanted to have played but I was surprised considering he wouldn't have been fully fit."Reuse content