Yobo stays wary of United on the wane

Everton's outstanding defender is ready to wreak revenge on old Goodison friend Rooney
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The Independent Football

As a pass, it could not have been bettered. Struck straight into the stride of Wayne Rooney, it was, of course, hammered into the net. Alas for Joseph Ikpo Yobo, Rooney no longer played for his team, Everton, and that gaffe sealed their fate in the season-opening home game with Manchester United.

Everton's 25-year-old Nigerian defender offers a convincing show of insisting he has put that nightmare behind him. But it is sure to cross his mind when the teams meet at Old Trafford this afternoon, not least because Yobo and Rooney are pals, and have been since the Nigerian moved to Goodison from Marseille in the summer of 2002 and was impressed by the talent of the 16-year-old local lad.

There are, however, limits to friendship. Yobo will be anxious not to repeat that particular favour. "I will say, 'Hi, how are things going?' but, as a defender, if Wayne comes my way I won't want to let him score. If there's a tackle to be made, I'm going to go in. I know what he's all about."

Having matured into Everton's outstanding defender this season, Yobo will be required to make plenty of tackles against a United team anxious to put some gloss on a week which saw them tumble out of Europe. "It's going to be difficult for us because they have something to prove to their fans," he said. "But we don't fear them, we're going there with confidence.

"I don't have anything to prove personally against United. Things like that mistake of mine happen. I'm stronger as a result of it because I have learned. I realised after that game I had to move on, I couldn't keep thinking about it. I had the oppor-tunity to turn things around, and I have done, because I've been playing well."

It was by achieving the difficult feat of playing well while Nigeria were performing badly at the 2002 World Cup which drew the attention of David Moyes to Yobo, who became the Scot's first signing four months into the job as Everton manager. An initial £1 million fee for a year-long loan from Olympique Marseille was upgraded long before that year was up into a permanent move, since when Yobo has proved his versatility by appearing in every defensive position. He could probably have played elsewhere, too, having joined the Belgian club Standard Liège as a midfielder at 17.

That move was opposed initially by his parents, who were keen for him to go to university in Lagos, but the intervention of Joseph's older brother, Albert, who had already gone to Europe to play for Auxerre and was doing well, proved decisive.

The deeply religious Yobo believes his path in football was ordained by God. "I always say my prayers, thank God for everything that has happened to me. But for the grace of God, I would not be here. I didn't study like my friends who went on to university, but I have been an ambassador for my country through football, which is a religion anyway, because you see it played on every street back home."

Despite having to hold up his hand for the occasional howler, like the Rooney gift, Yobo is proud that his excellence in the air and composure on the ground were key elements in Everton's successes of last season and have been vital in helping to pull the club round following a stuttering start to this one.

While there may be apprehension in some Goodison quarters about the magnitude of today's fixture, Yobo relishes the challenge of trying to subdue Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy. "We will show them respect, of course, but not too much.

"It's going to be very tough against Rooney because he is very special, he drifts anywhere he wants to, his work-rate is fantastic, and when he gets the ball he will always attack. It is hard to mark him out of a game, but it is important we do.

"The move to Manchester United has turned him from a boy into a man, and his football has changed. But I'm not bothered about him or Van Nistelrooy, I'm bothered about me and my team-mates, whether we are up for it."

Most of all, in Yobo's case, by not providing any more gifts.