By Ewan Roberts
For all the conjecture over games in hand and goal difference, Manchester City are not favourites for the Premier League title. Not while they still have to visit Goodison Park at least. City have picked up just one win in 15 away games against Everton since 1996 and have lost each of their last four matches against the blue half of Merseyside.
Standing between City and the title is a banana skin upon which they have repeatedly slipped before, and the Toffees have only become fiercer at home following Roberto Martinez's arrival. Under the Spaniard's watch the club have lost just twice at home this season and boast the joint-fourth best defensive record, while only Chelsea (9) and Arsenal (10) have kept more clean sheets on their own turf than Everton's eight.
And yet, despite the weight of past travails and the scars that have been inflicted on previous visits to Goodison, City have plenty of reasons to be optimistic that they can overcome such an exacting test.
While Martinez has undoubtedly improved Everton – adding more sparkle and invention than was present under David Moyes, encouraging more control of possession and allowing a greater sense of freedom – those changes in philosophy have made the side more open. Last season, Everton conceded more than two goals in a single match on just one occasion. This term they have done so four times.
The side's higher line and greater willingness to attack has earned plenty of plaudits, but it is also a style of play that suits more adventurous opposition. In their three games against the Premier League's most potent attacks, Liverpool and City, the Toffees have conceded 10 goals – almost a third of their total goals conceded this season.
That greater willingness to venture forward was exposed at the Etihad Stadium in October. Then, City attacked in surging waves, threading passes down the channels and behind the centre-backs. They played twice as many through-balls, six, as their season average, and all three goals resulted from probing, slide-rule passes.
It was a far faster paced match than the fixture usually churns out, with City more accustomed to the frustration of facing a deep and disciplined Everton defence offering minimal space in behind and crowding the penalty box, while Moyes has always been more concerned with simply not losing rather than trying to win.
Recent victories for the Toffees at Goodison, four on the trot, betray that pragmatism and have arrived more through luck that judgement, with last season's 2-0 win requiring a heroic display from reserve keeper Jan Mucha, while City's eight shots on target was the most Everton conceded in a single match all season.
|10/3||Everton are 10/3 with Paddy Power to score in both halves v Man City|
That will appeal to the galloping Yaya Toure, while Sergio Aguero can be expected to show the pace and movement in behind the defence that ravaged Tottenham for 45 minutes at the start of the year. The former Atletico Madrid frontman is particularly adept at drifting into the channels and tearing down the flanks, a tactic that could prove profitable on Saturday given how adventurous Everton's full-backs are.
It is worth noting, too, that City's deadly Ivorian-Argentine duo, who have 19 and 16 league goals respectively this season, have never taken to the field together at Goodison. City have a 70.4 per cent win rate when those two start together.
Everton, meanwhile, will have to contend with these threats without a host of key players. Centre-backs Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin are both doubts for the match, though Martinez is hopeful the former will be fit enough for a place in the squad, while Gareth Barry is ineligible against his parent club – a ruling that needs a rethink according to the former Wigan boss, who understands just how important the 33-year-old is.
Four of Everton's seven losses this season have come when one (or more) of that trio is missing, and they boast more career Premier League appearances than the rest of Saturday's probable outfield combined – testament to the experience they bring to a side that is likely to have four players aged 20 or under in the starting line-up against City.
A lack of organisation and communication in the absence of Jagielka and Distin was evident against Southampton, where Everton netted two own goals and their dishevelled backline looked a far cry from the frugal outfit forged by Moyes that has so frustrated City in the past.
Barry is an enormous miss for the home side, who have become dependant on the midfielder in both possession and non-possession phases of the game. He has averaged 2.8 tackles per game, compared to just 1.6 for Leon Osman, the player most likely to replace him. Barry's 49 interceptions is also the most of any Everton midfielder, while he tops the club's passing leaderboard with 66.9 per game, significantly more than second-placed Jagielka (53.2).
Barry's ball recovery skills will be especially missed against City, even more so with Everton showing signs of lethargy recently. In their last five matches they have recorded just 3.2 successful tackles per game in the opposition half (and 0.6 in the attacking third), compared to 4.1 (2.1) in the first 12 league matches of 2014.
Recent tiredness is likely a consequence of Everton's relatively small squad and injuries and ineligibilities only heighten the task the Toffees face on Saturday, while their new Martinez-led style potentially places greater strain on a defence devoid of the experienced and cunning heads that have thwarted City previously.
Pellegrini, meanwhile, travels to Goodison without the memories of past frustration and defeat and having fixed his side's early season travel sickness. The Chilean knows only victory at Everton, having knocked them out of the Champions League with Villarreal in 2005, and he will be optimistic that his new club can inflict further misery on the Toffees this weekend.
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