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EVER the perfectionist, praise from David Moyes almost always comes with a ‘but’. Everything in moderation is usually the order of things when the Everton manager is asked to assess the strength and weaknesses of his squad.
So it is typical that Moyes’ enthusiastic praise of Leighton Baines, almost a week after the rest of the nation finally cottoned onto the defender’s star quality, was completed with a caveat.
The ever demanding Scot accepts his £5m signing from today’s opponent’s Wigan Athletic is hot on the heels of Ashley Cole in the list of the country’s best full-backs, but insists there is still plenty of room for improvement.
While Baines lit up West London last Saturday with the jinking run and burst of pace which helped set up Jermaine Beckford’s equaliser - Moyes will not allow him to become complacent.
“Ashley Cole is the top modern full back,” he says. “He’s a big threat going forward, and can get back and defend well. He can do all the jobs.
“I think that’s the standard Bainsey should be aiming at. I’ve said to him many times he should look at Cole, and see how he does it, how often he gets forward.
“There’s a case to say Bainsey is the best form full back but I don't pick the England team, I pick the Everton team.
“I watch a lot of football and I’d say Ashley Cole is the best, and from what I’ve seen so far Baines is second, just behind him.”
The Blues boss has challenged Baines to improve on his already impressive consistency, and would like to see a step-up in his training too.
But he admits there is little more the 25-year-old can do to win a long-over due return to the England squad.
“There have been games where I thought he should have done better but he was terrific against Chelsea.
“All Leighton Baines can do is play as well as he can, and if you’re not selected you’re not selected.
“He needs to keep playing at that standard and he has been consistent this season.”
Moyes is particularly pleased at the combination of Baines and Steven Pienaar, one of his most potent weapons all season. He links up well with Pienaar, but I’ve actually been trying to get Pienaar into the middle of the pitch.
“Luckily I’ve got enough people there but I do want him on the ball more, and the combination with him and Bainsey works well.”
There will certainly been no shortage of tough love for Baines, Moyes insists, if his high standards ever slipped.
“He’s only young and I need to keep him on top of his game. If he didn’t then it’d be time for a swift kick in the behind.
“I hope that he wouldn’t let his standards drop, and he’s not the type of lad to do that.
“What he needs to do is improve his training. I’ve seen an improvement in it over the last six months and he must step it up even further.”
Marouane Fellaini is another one of his influential dynamos, and Moyes was impressed with the Belgian’s return from suspension at Stamford Bridge.
“Fellaini played well,” he says.
“He’s only played two of our last nine games because of injury and suspension. We haven’t had a chance to get him properly up and running since the start, but he was important to us last week.
“I don’t think it will take him long to get back on top form. In his first season he scored something like 10 goals for us.
“Folks doubted but he’s a good player. Because of his size people might say he looks a bit ungainly, but he does a really good job.
“Him and Jack Rodwell gave us a bit more energy and a bit more legs then we have had (against Chelsea). They covered the ground better, and we looked as though we’d lost that in recent games.
“We can use them, but we’ve got options in that area. Centre midfield is the one area where I’ve got competition.”
Moyes admits to some nerves among his squad ahead of the clash with Roberto Martinez’s men.
“There is a bit of trepidation ahead of Wigan. We’ve not beaten sides we have been expected to, and the players will be feeling that and I’m feeling that,” he says.
“Maybe we have to go into it with a different mind-set. Let’s get the result first and consider what we’ll do after that. We need to be harder to beat then we have been at home a few times. But the big thing is we have to be a lot more ruthless in front of goal.”