DAVID MOYES believes Everton face a season-defining fortnight – but the defiant Blues boss has backed his players to resurrect their flagging momentum.
The next two weeks will determine whether the Toffees can keep their dreams of silverware alive, and whether they also grab the vital Premier League victory required to keep them in the mix for Europe.
And starting with tonight’s fifth-round FA Cup replay against Oldham at Goodison, Moyes is urging his men to dig deep into their reserves of mental toughness with their hopes of a successful campaign in the balance.
He said: “I think it is a big game, because these two weeks we are in now are big weeks. Norwich was a big game in the league, and we now move into Oldham, then Reading, then we don’t know if we have a Cup game after that.
“It is maybe not against the top teams but it is still a period of tough games coming up. We have to try and knock one off at a time.
“I think we are in a period of maybe seeing what direction our season is going a little bit, so we have to look at that and see.”
Moyes will send another strong team out to face the League One Latics tonight, aware that victory will mean Everton have a run of four consecutive home games next month.
Progressing to a quarter-final Cup clash against Wigan at Goodison would mean their scheduled trip to face Arsenal at the Emirates on March 9 would make way until later in the season, and ensure plenty of home comfort at a time Everton need every bit of solace they can get. Most of all, however, he desperately wants to keep that inspirational Cup run fever alive.
“The cup does galvanise the place, it is difficult to explain but it keeps you on the way up. A good run can really lift the place, and that is what we are hoping to do,” he says.
“We haven’t seen games out lately, and we all know we have to be a bit tougher to see those games out and win games, and we have to try and show that a bit more than we have been doing.
“But maybe the season is beginning to take a wee bit of a toll on the players now. I’ve always said we’ve had to be grafting at it constantly and grit it out all season, and that may be having an effect.
“But we’ll get a second wind I think soon and kick on again.”
Moyes knows his side’s first obstacle comes in the form of Oldham’s 6ft7in striker Matt Smith, who almost singled-handedly vanquished Liverpool in the fourth round before scoring the last-gasp equaliser against his side at Boundary Park.
“He is a handful Matt Smith, because he’s a big lad who can jump as well,” he says. “I think you see that type less and less in football these days. He’s maybe a bit of a Duncan Ferguson, and maybe there’s a bit of Andy Carroll in him.
“I think they won’t change their approach, they’ll try to keep playing to the big lad when they can. They’ll use him, they’ll play directly to him, I can’t see them changing that style.”
Everton have conceded decisive late goals nine times already this season; and Smith’s header at Oldham was followed by Grant Holt’s strike on Saturday. It is a flaw Moyes is keen to iron out.
“Apart from five or so minutes at Norwich, we didn’t do an awful lot wrong,” he says. “I’m not saying we did everything right, but in the end we lost when we didn’t deserve too, we lost a game we shouldn’t have.
“That’s happened a few times, so it’s a concern. It’s because we haven’t killed teams off. We need to do one of two things, either kill teams off, or make sure we don’t concede.
“This is maybe a part of the season when it hasn’t been too kind for us, but you can look back at every month and see we have performed pretty much brilliantly each time. In January we won four out of five? and it could just be that in our last two games decisions have gone against us, otherwise February would be very different.
“I think maybe it’s because games are really tight too. Not many teams are scoring lots so games are really evenly balanced most of the time, and one or two bad decisions can affect the outcome.
“Even in the cups it can be pretty tight too – you can see that with some of the teams that are getting through to the later stages. I don’t fitness levels have anything to do with it, I’ve managed in the lower leagues and I don’t think that’s ever been a factor.”
While agreeing that his defence must sharpen their act, Moyes hopes they are given better protection from the referee this evening.
“I am expecting more from all of them,” he says. “At Oldham I thought the keeper did well, and I thought he was fouled. If we all jump with our arms up and take them away at the last minute, does that mean it’s ok? We may go and stand in front of the goalie – is that not ungentlemanly conduct?
“If we try and block the goalie’s vision, what is the rule with that? I agree though we have let goals in from within the six yard box, and we have to deal better with that. You should see where the ref’s position was at Oldham – it was incredible!”