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Ripe for a Reshuffle

David Moyes: Has the chance to really mix it up with some youth

Much like an aeroplane struggling to maintain altitude as, one by one, its engines sputter and die, Everton's season is in danger of nosediving in the wake of two poor performances against rival teams in the top six.  The Blues' season is coming off the rails, certainly in part because of injuries to key players, possibly due to fatigue of the remaining players and, perhaps, the waning effects of David Moyes's inspirational management.  That is not to say that Moyes's magic is wearing off; just that there is only so long he can keep his side challenging in the top four of the Premiership on motivation and fitness alone.  The signs that much of the squad were reaching burnout had been in evidence before the Easter weekend, but the calamitous holiday programme seemed to confirm that Everton are running out of fuel at the crucial time.

There are two schools of thought, it seems, on the whole issue of Everton's European challenge this season.  The first camp maintains that we supporters have no right to be disappointed if we lose out on European qualification altogether because we will still likely finish seventh and, if we'd been offered that at the start of the season, we'd have taken it without asking twice.

The second camp holds that, having established themselves in the top six back in November and occupying fourth place on more than one occasion, the opportunity to secure a Champions League place was not only possible — it was there for the taking.  The chance to knock, at the minimum, three years off the master plan and gain entry to Europe's most lucrative competition was just too good to let slip in the manner in which Everton did pass it up with sub-par performances against Liverpool and Chelsea.

With the issue of injuries and fatigue in mind — although, with all the breaks for internationals and cup games since the turn of the year, you have to wonder why the players look as spent as they do — I am firmly in the second camp.

Make no mistake: even if we do finish as low as seventh place, this will still have been a fantastic season for Everton and David Moyes.  Putting aside the argument that the gap between 17th and 7th in the Premiership is actually pretty small, for a club with no ready cash that has been struggling at the wrong end of the table for so long to be genuinely challenging for Europe the next year (with largely the same personnel) is a fine achievement.  Everton haven't left the top six in the table since November; only a complete collapse will see them end up outside of the European places come May 11th.  That kind of consistency was unthinkable even as late as September last year.

However, having entrenched themselves among the title contenders so early, stayed there until the final month of the campaign, and been presented with the chance to cement fourth place by beating the teams directly above and below them with three games to go, you can't help but be disappointed with the way the team seemed to collapse at the crucial moment.  Add to that Newcastle's timely collapse and the whole thing is even more sickening.  Even allowing for tiredness and key injuries, the performances against Liverpool and Chelsea were very poor and, on that basis, the Champions League dream was squandered away rather than simply taken by superior peers.

There is no doubt that injuries have played their part in the Blues' recent games and none was more debilitating to the team than Tomasz Radzinski's five-game absence with a groin strain.  The attacking outlet the Canadian international provides — and the extent to which Everton's success this term can be attributed to his pace, creativity and goals — have been starkly illustrated during his absence.

By the same token, however, Everton still overcame Newcastle, won at West Bromwich Albion, and gave Arsenal plenty to think about without him.  It's tempting to label Moyes's side a one-trick pony given their reliance on the long ball and Radzinski's speed but it is only recently, when things have started to go wrong, that they have begun using route-one football as their primary tactic.  For the most part, Moyes has had the players playing decent football this season, which begs the question: Why has that begun to evaporate now?

At this point, it is not clear whether or not Radzkinski will be fit for the visit of Aston Villa — a match that has taken on crucial importance given the fact that Blackburn are three points behind and have the benefit of an "extra point" thanks to a superior goal difference of three goals.  His return will be key in that it could represent the opportunity to re-establish the form that elevated Everton to the upper echelons of the Premiership before his untimely injury.

Tony Hibbert's absence since the turn of they year, coupled with that of Alessandro Pistone, Tobias Linderoth and Juliano Rodrigo, have robbed Everton of what could conceivably have been the bedrock of an even more successful team.  Again, though, Moyes's side are as high as they are in the Premiership in spite of these players not being available.  Only Hibbert and Pistone have appeared on enough occasions to be considered as having played a significant part in the campaign.  It's hard to dismiss not having Hibbert especially as a factor... but it doesn't explain why the performances have declined so sharply in recent games.

Tomasz Razinski: Blues fans are praying he'll be fit to face Villa

It's clear that, with two comparatively winnable games coming up before the visit of Manchester United there is an opportunity to address the stagnation in the squad before the confidence on which they players seems to thrive is shattered completely.  Depending on how cavalier Moyes feels in the wake of two poor displays, he can make some sweeping changes in an effort to renergise his team.  Thomas Gravesen, having been exposed time and again for the liability that he is, will, if there is any justice, start on the bench again or, more appropriately, be left out altogether in favour of Leon Osman.  Having established himself as the creative and driving force behind Everton's reserves, Osman has made ample case for a run in the first team.  The naysayers will point to his inexperience and the potential risk of involving him at such a crucial juncture, but Moyes transformed Everton last season by turning to youth to get the club out of relegation trouble.  Osman surely can't be any worse than Gravesen and, on that basis alone, deserves at least a place on the bench on Saturday.

Up front, Kevin Campbell looks exhausted, quite frankly, and if Moyes was smart he would throw Nick Chadwick into the mix this weekend and charge him with reproducing the impressive form he displayed at the tail end of last season and get the Blues back to winning ways.  As another player performing well for the second string, he may be coming into form at the right time.  Again, there will be those who will caution against it and suggest that Duncan Ferguson should get the nod instead.  However, with the need to get away from long ball football of paramount importance, employing the Scottish lamppost up front is not the way to go, particularly given his patent lack of fitness and mobility.

If it were me, and on the conservative assumption that Radzinski won't make it, I'd start with Wright, Hibbert (at the time of writing he is suffering from a gashed ankle sustained at Chelsea), Yobo, Weir, Naysmith, Watson, Li Tie, Gemmill, Carsley, Rooney and Chadwick.  On the bench: Campbell, Ferguson, Osman, Gerrard and Stubbs.

If Radz is fit, it would be nice to see Moyes just go hell for leather and play 4-3-3 with Rooney playing in the hole behind the front two.  Granted, he has already tried employing three forwards with mixed results, but this formation would probably force the team into playing the ball on the ground a lot more.

Most likely, Moyes will field a similar line-up to the one at Chelsea in the hope that the team that got him this far can recover their form.  Personally, an injection of some youth and a dogged insistence on keeping the ball on the deck is the only way to go in two must-win games.

Lyndon Lloyd

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