David Moyes has achieved many good things during his 11-year tenure as Everton manager, but one particular wish has proved elusive. It was a wish expressed early in his first full season at Goodison Park, during a post-match interview after a televised Monday night game at Manchester United.
For 85 minutes, Everton had held United. They had almost nicked a goal when a young substitute called Wayne Rooney wriggled his way through the home defence but failed to beat Fabien Barthez. Instead, a blitz of late goals left Everton 3-0 losers, and Moyes with a face like thunder. Asked if he was heartened by his side's showing, the response was defiant – "I want to be coming to places like this and winning."
Fast forward 11 years and Moyes has still to taste the satisfaction of a league victory at one of the quartet of clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United – who became defined as the Premier League's "big four".
It is a statistic that stands out as the real oddity of his Goodison reign given some rousing home victories over all of the aforementioned, not to mention Everton's ability to get under the skin of Manchester City since their Abu Dhabi-funded elevation to the elite.
Forty-three visits to the big four have brought not a single victory, but Moyes' team will visit the Emirates tonight knowing they will have to shred that unwanted statistic if they are to keep their hopes of Champions League qualification alive. "I think if we win this one, we will be right in with an opportunity. If we lose it, we will probably be out of that chance of making the top four," said Moyes.
Everton would climb within a point of third-placed Arsenal with a victory and will arrive on a run of four wins from five league matches. But now comes the hard part.
Those four victories all came at Goodison; now they need to do the same on their travels – and trips to the Emirates, Anfield and Stamford Bridge, as well as a re-energised Stadium of Light, all feature in a daunting run-in.
"If we're going to do it, we're going to have to win one of the big games somewhere along the line," said Moyes. "I've said to the players that we're going to have to win away from home and for the Champions League it might have to be more than once. It is us trying to break new ground in a lot of ways."
History suggests the Emirates is the toughest place to start. Everton have taken fewer points there (two) under Moyes than at any of the big four and even in 2004-05, the season they earned Champions League qualification, found themselves on the receiving end of a 7-0 drubbing – albeit three days after an evidently big night out at Albert Dock to celebrate finishing fourth.
They came closest three seasons ago when leading 2-1 through a delicious Steven Pienaar chip until Tomas Rosicky equalised with a deflected shot in stoppage time.
Perhaps this was the reason Moyes, despite an air of quiet confidence – "I feel good about the team, there are a lot of good things about them right now" – rated Everton's Champions League prospects as "15pc" yesterday.
"I am really loath to talk it up or think that way because it's such a difficult game for us. Undoubtedly our record has not been great at the Emirates. We go there as big outsiders to make it."
Everton's last success at Arsenal was in January 1996, eight months before the arrival of Arsene Wenger. Graham Stuart and Andrei Kanchelskis were the scorers in a 2-1 victory in which Barry Horne, the former Wales midfielder, also figured for Everton.
Now a Sky analyst, Horne defended his old side's away record against their wealthier rivals.
"With Everton over the course of the season, their results are more or less what they should be and you don't get too many shocks. Yes, you might expect a top-six team to do better in one of those games but I don't think it's a huge surprise.
"Everton pick points up against the teams below them home and away, pick points up against the teams above them at home and pick draws up on the road – that is how it should be."
Moyes himself argues Everton's consistency means "you get less complacency from the bigger sides when they play Everton" at home, while another factor is their lack of a reliable goalscorer, according to Horne.
Dismissing the suggestion it has anything to do with tactics, he points instead to the absence of "a player who can turn a game almost single-handedly" – which is what they had in 1995/96 when Kanchelskis was the match winner at both Highbury and Anfield.
Although Kevin Mirallas' recent spectacular goals against Stoke and Tottenham suggest he has that in him when fit, the fact is no Everton player since has surpassed Kanchelskis' 16 league goals in 1995/96 – hence Moyes' admission on that a consistent marksman would be his dream signing.
"(Luis) Suarez has got 29 for Liverpool and we've missed someone who has got us 15 or 20 goals. If we'd had that, we would be genuine contenders for the top spots," he mused.
As it is, they are the underfunded outsiders hoping to spring an upset tonight to keep an unlikely dream alive.
"If Everton did have a chance of making the Champions League it could change an awful lot of things for Everton as a football club, which it nearly did the year we (lost to) Villarreal," said Moyes, referring to the 2005 qualifying defeat against the Spanish club.
Then Everton's chances died with a controversial Pierluigi Collina decision to disallow a Duncan Ferguson header which would have levelled the aggregate scores in the second leg at El Madrigal.
It remains one of the big 'what-ifs' of the Moyes reign. With a question-mark against his future, tonight could prove almost as pivotal in its own way.
"I've actually not really thought how big a game it could be for Everton," said Moyes. "I think maybe if I won it then I would start thinking how big." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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