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PHIL Neville hopes Everton FC’s attacking prowess is sharper than ever in time for their challenging start to the new season against Manchester United.
The Blues skipper was upbeat after David Moyes’ men recorded their second pre-season win on Thursday with a 1-0 victory over Dundee United at Tannadice Park.
Everton crafted a few chances during an otherwise dour encounter, which didn’t feature Nikica Jelavic, Tim Cahill or new signing Steven Naismith, and Neville knows they need a sharper cutting edge when they face Alex Ferguson’s men next month.
He said: “The squad looks strong, confident and fit. The most important thing now is that we work on our sharpness, speed and attacking play.
“You’re not going to come out in the first game and be unbelievably sharp and back where we were at the end of last season, but that’s the aim. We want to get back to that kind of level.
He added: “We’ve done our base work – 10 days tough training in Austria and back at Finch Farm. We’ve got some games coming up and you can only get that sharpness through playing in games.
“It’s about getting the right amount of football from now until the start of the season. This is where it begins.”
Neville completed his first full run-out of the Blues’ warm-up programme against the Scottish Premier League side, and was joined in part by fellow senior players like Marouane Fellaini and Tim Howard.
But the skipper was buoyed by the impact of the club’s younger players, as Ross Barkley impressed with a classy half-hour exhibition of his talents and a late winner.
Neville added: “We’ve played some young players again. Ross Barkley played well when he came on and Luke Garbutt did okay. Shane Duffy is proving that he can handle playing in the first team.
“Another positive is that some of the senior players got games – myself, Ossie, Seamus, Sylvain and Tim Howard. That’s like money in the bank really.”
Everton fly to Indonesia for participation in the Java Cup next week, with Leighton Baines part of the travelling squad – although speculation linking the England defender with Manchester United refuses to go away.
And United boss Ferguson has spoken for the first time of his desire to sign a new left-back to challenge for a starting spot with captain Patrice Evra.
“Left-back is an area which we’re paying attention to in that sense that Patrice, in the last five years, has played an average of 45 to 50 games,” said Ferguson
“Patrice will be all right.
“He’s shown he has a resilience about him and has a great attitude to playing, but he is 31 next month.”
United are still looking at their possible options as regards a move for Baines, but Ferguson is a long-term admirer of the player.
ANY EVENT which involves Peter Reid and an Everton shirt in close proximity is enough to put a nostalgic smile on the faces of Bluenoses of a certain vintage.
The Huyton-born former midfielder’s in turns jovial and growling demeanour is a reminder of better times for those of the blue faith, and even if his occasional taciturn approach means he’d make an unlikely preacher, Reid is almost evangelical in his assessment of the forthcoming season for Everton.
Reid immediately cancelled plans for a relaxing afternoon watching England take on South Africa at the Oval when his favourite club came calling, asking that he help launch their opinion-splitting new home kit last week.
And before he got down to the serious business of his former team’s hopes for the new season, he gave a typically plain-speaking assessment of the Nike shirt with the white bands on the sleeves and blue socks which has upset some purists.
“It’s a great shirt, but then any shirt with the Everton badge on it is,” says the 56-year-old.
“I think the fans will take to it. They’ll get used to the white bands on the arms – it’s something to wipe their noses on.”
That pithy matter aside, Reid is keen to get onto the business of the forthcoming campaign – and he senses a rare optimism around fellow Evertonians ahead of the kick-off next month, despite the club’s tendency to usually start campaigns bereft of form.
“I think there’s an optimism now from Evertonians,” he says.
“The way they finished the season was strong. The FA Cup semi-final was very disappointing but I think there’ll be a confidence in the squad, especially if they can hold on to all of their better players. That’s a big thing as well.”
Even the identity of the opponents for the big kick off – a Monday night clash with last season’s runners-up Manchester United at Goodison, doesn’t dent Reid’s positivity.
“OK You look at Everton and they have been slow starters and got stronger,” he says.
“How do you change that? Is it pre season? It’s hard to say. I think having Manchester United first game is interesting. I don’t think Sir Alex will relish coming to Goodison for the first game at all.
“We’ve had Naismith come in and there’s speculation about Pienaar. Hopefully the two young lads, Rodwell and Barkley will be fit and put pressure on for a first team place as well. Jelavic in the last transfer window was a master stroke. If they can actually get Pienaar it would be great, and then you’re looking at a really strong, well balanced squad which you would want at any football club.
“Don’t forget Everton finished above Liverpool last time, and from the point of view of their financial clout that was a good season. Of course the thing which was hard to take was the semi-final but those things happen. So I trace some optimism now and I feel it as well."
Reid believes the return of Steven Pienaar could be crucial to David Moyes’ hopes for success, and suggests the pro-player balance of power in the modern game means that Everton should have a strong chance of re-signing the South African, who has made it clear his heart is set on Merseyside.
“With Pienaar its very difficult to keep hold of a player nowdays when they want to move. Whether he had the chances at Tottenham is debatable but he didn’t really do it,” he says.
“But he came back to Everton and he was terrific, with that relationship with Leighton Baines down the left hand side. I think he’ll be a tremendous signing if they can do it.
“If you look at the experience in the squad it’s impressive too; Neville, Distin, Heitinga, Baines, Hibbert, Osman, all good players. They’ve got the right blend. We haven’t seen the best of Gibson either yet.”
Perhaps the most exciting element for Reid is the prospect of two young midfield talents fully emerging during this season.
“If Rodwell and Barkley can come through in the middle of the park it’d be great,” says the man to whom dominating a midfield with aggression and brains came naturally.
“They both have ability to open up and dictate games. Why not have two young lads come through and save the club a bit of money.
“They have both had injuries but I had plenty of injuries in my career and it is difficult, but they’ve just got to be strong.
“With the sports science involved in football these days you can really improve your core strength and stamina and go out on the pitch and try to dominate games.
“With Jack I think he’s got all the attributes but I think he needs to stamp his authority on games – that’s not criticism it’s mean to help. Especially in the middle of the park you need that, he’s got all the attributes to do it and he’s got to do it. He’s no longer a kid, he’s a player now and has to come up with the goods – I’m sure he will.
“He hasn’t always had the luck. I was at the derby last season when he got that red card and it was a joke. Embarrassing. Football finally died that day after that decision. It was a great tackle and it was unfortunate but you’ve got to overcome those things, it’s part and parcel of the game.
“Then I’ve had really good reports on Barkley. People whose judgement I hold in high regard have said the lad has something, he did well with England’s U-19’s.
“It’s the start of a new season, they should both go for it. They both have ability to open up and dictate games. Why not have two young lads come through and save the club a bit of money?”
WITH 241 England caps between them, Everton Ladies stalwarts Rachel Brown, Jill Scott and Fara Williams are set to form the backbone of the Great Britain women’s side at this summer’s Olympics.
The trio helped the Blues to a third-placed finish in the inaugural season of the FA Women’s Super League in 2011, and have joined up with the Team GB squad as the women’s game takes a mid-season break for the Olympics.
Goalkeeper Brown, who has been part of the England women’s set up for 15 years, has spoken of her joy at being selected for the Games.
“I’m unbelievably proud to represent Great Britain in the biggest tournament in the world,” said the Everton stopper, who began her club career at rivals Liverpool.
“There has been hype about the Olympics since it was announced that London would host the Games,” she added.
“When we found out that we were going to have a women’s team, that was huge in itself.”
The Blues’ Player of the Year recently left her day job as a PE teacher to concentrate fully on her club and international career, and faces competition from Karen Bardsley for a place in goal at the Games.
But whether or not she is Hope Powell’s first choice, Brown is proud simply to have been selected.
“It has not even been a possibility at previous Olympics, so to have been picked is one of the highest points of my career as an international player.”
Brown’s Everton colleagues Scott and Williams should replicate their impressive club partnership in the centre of midfield.
Sunderland-born Scott, nicknamed “Crouchy” after former Liverpool striker Peter Crouch due to her 5’11” height, is a tenacious and energetic box-to-box player with 58 England caps.
The 25 year-old also chips in with her share of goals, and bagged a brace in England’s 4-0 Euro 2013 qualifying win over Slovenia last month.
Williams meanwhile is one of the most experienced and gifted players in the Team GB Women’s squad.
Noted for her technical prowess and dead-ball ability, Williams’ 36 goals in 105 England caps mark her out as one of the finest midfielders in the women’s game.
The 28 year-old joined Everton in 2004 after spells at Chelsea and Charlton, and skippered England as they reached the final of the 2009 European Championships.
She turned down a lucrative move to the US side Philadelphia Independence the following year to remain at Everton, and her loyalty was rewarded with a 2010 Women’s FA Cup winners’ medal.
“These are exciting times for us,” said Williams, who is also employed by the FA as a skills coach.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase ourselves. It’s a massive experience and one we will never forget.”
But the play maker has warned that the Team GB squad must focus on negotiating a potentially tricky group, featuring Brazil, Cameroon and New Zealand, before they begin dreaming of medal glory.
“Our focus has to be the group stage,” she said ahead of England’s group E opener against New Zealand next week.
“We need to win that opening game. Having played against them for England, I know that New Zealand will be tough opposition.
Williams admits that there will be a few nerves among the players as they walk out at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday to face the Kiwis, and added that final group opponents Brazil will present a stern test.
“The first game always brings nerves and expectation, so hopefully we can get a good result.
“Obviously everybody knows about Brazil, so that will be a very tough game for us.
“Once we get out of the group, we can start thinking about medals.”
But club-mate Brown insists that the Team GB women are more than capable of delivering a medal, and will be going for gold.
“Ultimately, we want to win the thing,” the 32 year-old said. “I’m hoping that we can do something extraordinary on home soil.”
GROUP A Schedule
Thursday, July 26: UAE vs Uruguay at Old Trafford (5pm), Team GB vs Senegal at Old Trafford (8pm).
Sunday, July 29: Senegal vs Uruguay at Wembley Stadium (5pm), Team GB vs UAE at Wembley Stadium (7.45pm).
Wednesday, August 1: Senegal vs UAE at City of Coventry Stadium (7.45pm), Team GB vs Uruguay at Millennium Stadium (7.45pm).
GROUP E Schedule
Wednesday, July 25: Team GB v New Zealand at Millennium Stadium (4pm).
Saturday, July 28: Team GB v Cameroon at Millenium Stadium (5.15pm).
Tuesday, July 31: Team GB v Brazil at Wembley Stadium (7.45pm).