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KEVIN MIRALLAS can provide the creative spark Everton need in Steven Pienaar’s absence for the Merseyside derby, says Tim Howard.
The USA goalkeeper insists Mirallas, 25, will thrive because his lack of derby familiarity means he will feel less pressure ahead of the crunch show-down.
And Howard is confident the £5.5m summer signing will not be bowed by the combative tempo of Sunday’s Goodison clash.
He said: “It’ll be a big one for him. Sometimes your best opportunity in a derby is when you’re a foreigner and you don’t really know the pressure and the rivalry. It lets you play a little loose so we’ll see.
“He’s a flair player. He’s confident and he likes to get on the ball and it’ll be a good taste for him. He’s going to have to fill a void for us and we’re confident he can do it well.
“Steven is a big miss. We have some key players and we can’t have them missing too often but in the end we’re going to have to deal with it. Guys are going to have step up and other people like Kevin will get opportunities.
“The derby will be the usual rough and tumble. They play a good brand of football, we’ve been playing some really classy stuff so in the end it should be a good game.”
Howard admitted he is still hopeful that both Marouane Fellaini and Darron Gibson will recover from injuries in time to feature in the 219th Merseyside derby.
Everton are optimistic Fellaini will play a part as his knee injury shows signs of progress, but Gibson is thought to have an outside chance at best.
“We’re missing a few players,” added Howard.
“We’ll see if Felli is fit and were hoping Gibbo can maybe just make it.
"That’d be a big boost for us.
“The more players we can keep on the park avoiding red cards and injuries the better, but unfortunately we can’t pick and choose when guys get injured or silly sending offs.”
Everton will at least have goalscorer Nikica Jelavic raring to go on Sunday, with the Croatian hoping to score against Liverpool again after he got off the mark in April’s FA Cup semi-final.
The 27-year-old striker has been denied a string of credible penalty claims in recent games, while arguably being afforded little protection from referees – but Howard reckons he is tough enough to handle himself.
He added: “Jela’s a bit of a brawler and likes to mix it up and put himself in those dangerous positions where defenders really have to play him. He makes defenders dive in because he’s got a nice close touch in the box and he’s lethal.
“Maybe the referees are seeing that he gives as good as he gets and sometimes he doesn’t get those calls.”
FOUR days ago he was called an animal by his own admiring team-mate after an all-action display of unrelenting defensive ferocity in West London.
Phil Jagielka hurled himself at every loose ball, won every header and was even unfortunate not to score twice as the Blues prised a valuable point from QPR at Loftus Road on Sunday.
It’s the sort of combative form which is essential for a Merseyside derby – but the England man believes this Sunday’s game is not just about blood, thunder and bragging rights for the Blues.
Indeed the 30-year-old has double motivation this weekend for the game. And he says recording an overdue derby victory is of equal importance to maintaining the Blues’ lofty Premier League position.
Everton are currently fourth in the table but must also look to respond to three derby defeats last season – the most dispiriting of all being April’s FA Cup semi-final loss to the Reds at Wembley.
“I think it’s a strange one,” he says. “Normally we are desperate to beat them just because it’s Liverpool.
“This time we would love to beat them but we have to think about keeping ourselves up towards the top of the league.
“Normally we are playing catch-up (in the league table) by now so it’s nice to be up there.”
While Jagielka is amused by Tim Howard’s “animal” tag from Sunday, he insists his central defensive partner Sylvain Distin was equally impressive, and says the pair will be busier this season as Everton unfurl a more attacking style.
“I am not too sure if that was a compliment,” Jagielka laughed when asked about Howard’s words of praise. “I will have to ask him! It was one of those days, I thought Sylvain had a great game next to me. You throw yourself in there and sometimes the ball hits you and sometimes it doesn’t.
“We have conceded goals in games and with the expansive football we are playing we are having a little bit more to do. As long as we get a decent amount of points on the board, if we concede it is just one of those things.”
Indeed, Everton’s confident attacking displays this term – particularly at Goodison – have the squad in confident mood, but Jagielka stops short of talking about being favourites to win the 219th Merseyside derby.
“We don’t look at it like that,” he says. “Derbies are a little bit different.
“We have a had a good start to the season so confidence should be high.
“We are all going to be up for it and hopefully we can get Goodison rocking.
“Obviously Steven Pienaar is a big player for us so seeing him get sent off was disappointing. But we have players who can come in. Hopefully we can get Felli back and possibly one or two others.”
One of those others will be derby veteran Tony Hibbert, and after returning to action for Alan Stubbs’ under-21s this week the defender is ready to declare himself fit to face Brendan Rodger’s men.
The Huyton-born defender has been sidelined with a calf injury since last month’s 2-2 draw with Newcastle, but played the full 90 minutes during the 2-1 defeat by Arsenal at Finch Farm on Monday.
And Stubbs believes the timing of Hibbert’s return represents a boost to David Moyes’ squad along with the likely recovery of Marouane Fellaini.
“It’s great that he’s got a full game under his belt,” he says. “Ideally he could have done with another game before Sunday, but as long as this week’s training goes well, at least he’ll be a welcome addition to the squad.
“He’ll be desperate to play in the game and if the gaffer decides to call upon him, he’ll be ready.
“In the derby games, they take care of themselves. You get through on adrenalin more often than not – it’s mainly only towards the end of games where the adrenalin drifts off, you start to tire and the nervous energy that you built up before the game starts to kick in.”
Hibbert has played in 17 Premier League derbies to date, the most of any Everton player.
And with Seamus Coleman proving a worthy deputy in his recent absence, Stubbs believes choosing will provide a welcome headache for Moyes.
He said: “Seamus has done well in the team in the last few weeks that he has been there. It’s a dilemma, but it’s a nice dilemma that the manager would always want.
“He would rather have more options as opposed to just one.”
SOUTH AFRICA Football Association chief executive officer Robin Petersen says he still hopes that Steven Pienaar will reverse his decision to retire from international football.
The Everton midfielder quit Bafana Bafan on October 2, just months before his home nation hosts the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Petersen said: “We wish somehow he would change his mind.
“I want to sit down with Steven and find out his reasons. We’d love to have him - he’s clearly our best player.”
The 30-year-old has 60 caps for his country and has played in two World Cups, and Petersen wants to retain his experience in next year’s Nations Cup, which takes place between January 19 and February10.
“It is a big setback for us. It is very sad,” said Petersen.
Petersen believes South Africa’s poor recent form and the huge responsibility on Pienaar’s shoulders were contributing factors in the Blues’ playmaker’s decision.
“Steven has been a loyal servant to South African football and he has given his best - I have never been one of those who felt he hasn’t tried,” said Petersen.
“I’ve always seen him as working hard, carrying a big burden psychologically and emotionally.
“We haven’t been doing that well and I think it has worn him down - the emotional and psychological pressure, rather than physical pressure, has been the thing that has worn him down.
“Maybe he will change his mind in the future, we will see.”
For now Petersen is aware that South Africa must plan for life without Pienaar. And he hailed the response from coach Gordon Igesund.
“We have to move on and the coach’s attitude has been the right one, which is to say ‘we have to make do with what we have’.
“And that’s what I really like about our coach - he turns those negatives into positives and he sees how he is able to make the most of what we have.”
KEVIN Sheedy paid tribute to Everton academy coach Neil Dewsnip and former Goodison great Duncan Ferguson for helping the U18s remain focused during his absence through illness.
He said: “Neil and Duncan kept it going and they were great. We’ve been playing some good football and starting from the back doing things properly.
“They have helped us to weather a period when we’ve been playing well but not quite getting results and now we’re looking for a out third win in a row when West Ham come to Finch Farm on Sunday. I’m grateful to them.”
KEVIN MIRALLAS believes the return to fitness of “scary” Marouane Fellaini can land a psychological blow for Everton FC ahead of Sunday’s derby.
Fellaini is winning his battle to be fit after being sidelined by a knee injury suffered while on international duty with Belgium earlier this month.
The midfielder, a huge influence behind the strong start to the season for David Moyes’s side, sat out his country’s World Cup qualifying wins against Serbia and Scotland and missed Everton’s 1-1 draw at Queens Park Rangers last weekend.
However, the 24-year-old has responded to treatment and is expected to line up in the 219th meeting with neighbours Liverpool at Goodison this weekend.
And Mirallas is convinced the sight of compatriot Fellaini in the starting line-up will give Everton a mental boost.
“I think he will be playing on Sunday,” said the attacker. “He is a fantastic player and when he’s not there it’s harder for the team to get good results.
“It’s also good to have Marouane available because he is scary for the other team. People in the opposition fear him.
“It will be really important for him to play. He would be a psychological asset.”
Sunday’s game is likely to be too soon for Darron Gibson – missing since September 1 with a thigh problem – although Tony Hibbert could be involved.
Everton will look to strengthen their grip on fourth place with victory on Sunday, which would open up a nine-point gap on their neighbours.
And Phil Jagielka reveals league position as much as local pride will be main incentive at Goodison.
“We don’t look at it like we are favourites,” said the centre-back. “Derbies are different. Confidence should be high in out squad after our good start to the season, but it’s a derby – we will all be up for it anyway.
“Hopefully we can get the Goodison fans rocking and give them a good result on Sunday.
“We are normally desperate to beat Liverpool because it’s Liverpool. But this time we also have to think about keeping ourselves up at the higher end of the league. Normally at this time we are playing catch-up, so it’s a nice change.”
Everton will be without Steven Pienaar, the South African serving a one-match ban following his dismissal for two bookable offences at Loftus Road last Sunday.
And Jagielka added: “Steven is a big player for us, and his red card was disappointing.
“But we have decent enough players to come in, hopefully we can get Felli back and one or two others and we will go into the game with confidence.
“The mood in the squad is not bad. We’d have liked three points at QPR but the way the game went with us going behind early on and losing Steven to a second yellow card, it was a decent result and keeps us up there at the top end and prepares us for Sunday.
“We are still conceding goals in games but with the expansive football we are playing we are having a little bit more to do at the back than before.
“As long as we get a decent amount of points on the board, if we happen to concede it’s one of those things.”
Meanwhile, Everton officials are urging fans to arrive in plenty of time for the Merseyside derby on Sunday, which kicks off at 1.30pm.
The club have introduced pre-match entertainment in the Park End car park from 10.30am, including music, games and competitions.
Everton have also reintroduced the ban on bottles being taken into the seated areas at Goodison for Sunday, with bottled drinks only allowed to be consumed in the concourse areas.