IF DAVID Moyes could hope for one final present under his Christmas tree ahead of a tricky away tie to Stoke City, it would be a fit Phil Jagielka.
The combination of attacking power and aerial bombardment the Blues are likely to face at the Britannia Stadium, means the Blues boss could do with being able to call on the man who has forged a stubborn central defensive partnership with Sylvain Distin this season.
While there have been worrying issues in other areas of the field so far, the 28-year-old has largely built on the form which saw him force his way back into Fabio Capello’s post-World Cup England squad, and earn high praise from the taciturn Italian.
Moyes will hope that Jagielka’s extra rest, due to the postponement of Everton’s boxing day clash with Birmingham and a non appearance in the squad that faced West Ham, will give him a chance of a clean bill of health against Tony Pulis’s hard-to-beat outfit.
For Jagielka, a successful second half of the season for his club will cap off a brighter period in his England career. Following the dejection of missing out on a call up to the ultimately ill-fated attempt to win the World Cup in South Africa.
And if he needed telling that his progress remains on track, it came in the pleasant surprise of Capello declaring him a “leader” on the pitch ahead of the Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria in September.
“I think he means I’m a little bit vocal on the pitch – obviously last month we didn’t have a great deal of experience with Rio [Ferdinand] and JT [John Terry] not being there,” says the defender with 346 combined appearances in the league for Sheffield United and Everton.
“I’ve not got much international experience but I’ve quite a lot of league games, so hearing that from the manager was delightful. He was saying, in a sense, that I was one of the most experienced players available at the time.
“Just to get the start in the first game against Bulgaria felt great. To look back on two quality results makes it extra special.”
Jagielka’s recent thigh problems follow further minor complications with his knees, which prompted the darkest period of his career following the cruciate injury he suffered in 2009.
“There are all sorts of motivational things to get you back from injury,” says the former Sheffield United defender. “But if you’d told me five or six months ago that I would play three England games on the spin and we’d win all three I would have laughed at you. It was definitely a fantastic moment in my career to be back with England, after probably the lowest point of my career with the injury.”
Jagielka insists that playing alongside the experienced Distin this season has helped his game, but he also doffed his cap to former central defensive partner Joleon Lescott, who he still links up with in the England set-up.
“It made life a lot easier, I’m 100 per cent confident playing alongside Joleon,” he says. “We complement each other quite well and we found a formula that works. It was nice to play alongside him again, even more so for your country. I was delighted when Joleon got the nod, and I thought that we had most things pretty much under control throughout the game.”
But Jagielka is determined not to rest on his laurels, and even though his manager may be praying for him to pass a fitness test on Saturday morning, he admits there are still parts of his game which must improve – and will undoubtedly be tested if he is pitched into the fray against Stoke’s pulverising duo of Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller.
“I think I’m an all-rounder really,” he says. “A decent defender, maybe not the biggest, so I have to work at being dominant in the air. I like to think I read the game okay, I just try to get the job done really.”
Everton’s away form, even in a disappointing season to date, would be good enough for a top five placing so there is some cause for optimism ahead of the visit to the Midlands, particularly given that they won the reverse fixture at Goodison Park in October.
Against weaker sides Stoke have been strong with seven wins and two draws from 12 games against teams below them in the League table. Yet the Potters have been less resilient against teams that have been ahead of them, with only one point from six games.
David Moyes must hope his team can flourish on the road once again, with the presence of the popular defender who will never shirk an honest afternoon’s graft - which could well be on the menu in the Potteries.