David Moyes's discussion of Rafael Benitez, whose description of Everton as a "small club" during his time as Liverpool manager will never be forgiven across Stanley Park, was a blend of neat evasion and heavy irony, as Goodison prepared to receive the Spaniard's new Chelsea team. "No. I don't think it had any effect!" Moyes said, his straight face slipping hopelessly into a grin when it was put to him that the infamous observation, which Benitez made after the goalless Merseyside derby of 2007, must have been a constant source of motivation down the years.
You hardly needed a grasp of semantics to sense the Moyes coolness. "You go in there at Chelsea and you have always got a chance of winning games. I don't think it is a surprise that Chelsea are winning," Moyes said. "I've met him [Benitez] many times and we get on fine. I've got no problems at all." And how would Goodison greet him? "I've no idea. I've no idea what he will get…"
The Everton manager could afford some good humour because even though he hasn't had the money to spend of his Chelsea counterparts, he could have the last laugh. Against very considerable odds, his Everton side arrive at their final fixture of the year as the third-best performing Premier League side of 2012 with a 68-point haul which is bettered only by the Manchester clubs. That's two points more than Chelsea and fully 25 more than Liverpool, where Brendan Rodgers – struggling no less than Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish did following Benitez's departure – is still on the outskirts of a crisis.
If Moyes's side, unbeaten at Goodison Park this season, beat Benitez's tomorrow they will leapfrog Chelsea, reach the Champions League places and could quite conceivably sit third heading into 2013.
That prospect is even more remarkable given the dismal place Everton were in this time last year, after scratching around the division's lower reaches when Mikel Arteta's departure to Arsenal hit them so hard. It says everything for the turnaround that the last time Moyes encountered a Benitez side he fielded such dubious threats as Jo and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. Now he has a Leon Osman whose England call-up has driven him to new heights of self-confidence and self-expression on the field; a Steven Pienaar back flourishing on Merseyside; and Nikica Jelavic – "the striker we didn't really feel we'd had for a long time", as Moyes put it yesterday.
Everton's progression, in a calendar year when Chelsea have invested heavily, makes it feel as though spending no longer matters, though it is, of course, stability which is the key factor and Moyes was magnanimous enough to say so yesterday. "Time is the important factor," he said. "I think if you are a spending club it looks like you have to spend and get it right. Spend, win and it has to be good. I might not have had the money but I've had the time to build the club and take it forward. Because of that, I hope it's allowed me to make baby steps each year, if you want to call it that. We've done a little bit and added every year."
The progression hasn't been quite so linear as all that. At his corresponding press conference last year Moyes was warning Everton fans not to pin all their hopes on 30-year-old Landon Donovan turning their season around. He still remembers the questions on that day: "It was 'how are you doing? Who've you brought in? How are you going to move forward?'" he recalled. Pienaar arrived back on loan from Spurs just before the transfer deadline and was off and running within a week, scoring the opener in the 2-0 win over Chelsea, which marked the beginning of the end for Andre Villas-Boas. Jelavic took only marginally longer, netting nine times in seven games last spring, while the development curves of Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Osman in the last year have come at a stage in their careers when it is probably as good as it will ever get. Marouane Fellani also continues to reach new heights – further testament that Moyes is judicious, if not always immediately decisive, in the market.
"There's been no difference to our mentality," Moyes said. "Have we changed anything drastically? No. Maybe we've had our players in place at the start of the season – a team which had gained momentum from January of last season. We didn't need to make too many changes and thankfully we've got off to a good start."
The desperately poor performance in the FA Cup semi-final defeat by Liverpool bore out a sense that Everton cannot take the final step to silverware. But it is a measure of his fierce pride in his club, which can sometimes feel like defensiveness when he talks, that Moyes is damned if he will talk down Champions League prospects. "I don't want to play it down and say we've got no chance. I would like us to be a club which might have a chance. But I also want to be realistic and say 'hang on a minute'. I think we made the European Cup in 1971. We then qualified in the 1980s after Heysel. And the only other time was when we did it in 2005. So you would have to say that at the moment, looking at the history, Everton are the long shots and that it won't be Everton with that form over recent history. I have to be realistic and say it will be tough for Everton."
Moyes said a month back that Everton will have made the final leap when big clubs stop taking their players, and it was against that backdrop yesterday that he insisted, in response to The Independent's disclosure of Chelsea's interest in Leighton Baines, that the defender would not be leaving next month.
"I remember my first four or five years here when we might finish seventh or eighth one year, 15th or 16th the next. We were a bit like that. I don't think you see Everton like that any more," he said. Not such a "small club" then? "I'd better not answer that!" he replied.
Goodison business: Moyes' magical deals
Leighton Baines: Signed from Wigan Athletic for £6m in 2007
The attacking left-back is defensively solid and a great set-piece taker. Has been linked with moves to Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.
Joleon Lescott: Signed from Wolves, £5m, 2006. Sold to Man City, £22m, 2009
Everton pocketed a £17m profit on the England centre-back, who made 143 appearances for the Toffees, scoring 17 goals.
Mikel Arteta: Signed from Real Sociedad, £2m, 2005. Sold to Arsenal, £10m, 2011
A creative fulcrum for Everton, providing guile and goals from midfield. Now essential to Arsenal's possession-based game.
Tim Cahill: Signed from Millwall, £1.5m, 2004. Sold to New York Red Bulls, £1.5m, 2012
Quickly became a talismanic figure at Goodison Park and one of the best headers of the ball in Premier League history. A midfielder often employed up front, the Australia international scored 68 goals in 278 appearances.
Tim Howard: Signed from Manchester United, £3m, 2007
The experienced shot-stopper has been a mainstay in the Everton side since arriving permanently five years ago. He has not missed a league game since September 2007 and even found the opposition net against Bolton last season.
Tight Toffees: Everton spending
* Net spend of ever-present clubs in the Premier League since 2002/03 - David Moyes' first full season in charge at Goodison Park.
Manchester City £441.7m
Manchester United £155.4m
Aston Villa £103.7m