EVERTON fielded their most used centre-back pairing of the season against Norwich City – but it still felt as though half of that combination was auditioning for Wembley.
Phil Jagielka was flying until January yet three months on he does not know where he stands ahead of the club’s return to the national stadium.
England caps and the plaudits to match, the 29-year-old was proving himself amongst the outstanding defenders in the country earlier in the campaign.
It did not go unnoticed elsewhere and talk of a move to Arsenal resurfaced.
However, medial ligament damage against Bolton Wanderers cut Jagielka down in full flow and only recently has he returned to senior action.
Having been thrust back in at the deep end of a Merseyside derby, the former Sheffield United man would go on to produce something colossal at Swansea City and play his part is snuffing out West Bromwich Albion just over a week ago.
But as seamlessly as his reintroduction has been, Jagielka is no longer at the front of the queue.
By the turn of the year they had played alongside each other just once this season but, with Jagielka injured, it was John Heitinga who now partnered Sylvain Distin.
The Distin-Jagielka axis worked. Powerful, dominant and quick for a combination in that position, Everton knew their best pairing.
At least they thought they did.
David Moyes is now spoilt for choice.
Signed in 2009 with the label of versatility hanging off him, Heitinga had previously struggled to find an identity in royal blue but that he stands on the edge of an Everton milestone this week, is a clear indication of his progress.
Ninety-eight appearances since making the switch from Atletico Madrid, the Dutchman is expected to feature against Sunderland this afternoon and then possibly reach his century in the capital on Saturday.
Heitinga’s form has been exceptional and while Jagielka has proven himself worthy of regular international recognition and a place on the plane to Euro 2012, his colleague has moved up a notch on that scale.
An initial £6m outlay now seems shrewd operating even by the bargain hunting standards of the Everton manager.
Clocking up 31 starts from 40 games this season is some achievement given he didn’t begin a league game until the end of October and the statistics continue to back up his claims for a starting role at Wembley.
Ahead of the trip to Norwich on Saturday, Heitinga had produced the most defensive blocks for Everton in the league this season (29) and of the 12 clean sheets in all competitions, the Dutchman played in nine of those games – more than Distin and Jagielka.
His quality on the ball, reading of the game and awareness are qualities all less easy to quantify but they still don’t go unnoticed.
Jagielka has done little wrong since returning but finds himself playing catch-up with Heitinga for the final centre-back place.
The England international’s performance at Norwich, while certainly decent, was not perhaps a display to put Heitinga’s recent showings in the shade.
Second guessing the manager is always a foolish pursuit but Distin, as a natural left-sided defender, looks likely to get the nod for Wembley and form would suggest Heitinga lines up alongside him.
Whichever partnership Moyes chooses then Everton will be in safe hands. Arguably the Blues have not had a better defensive unit in his reign.
The joint third meanest defence in the league, Everton have shown themselves significantly more miserly this season than at the same stage in 2011 and 2010.
Five of the 34 goals Everton have shipped have come against Liverpool and Heitinga looks set to be charged with ensuring that comes to a halt in the Cup.