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EVERTON must beat Fulham tomorrow or risk losing crucial ground on the Champions League chasing pack, says Bryan Oviedo.
With Chelsea and Manchester United beginning to pull away from the rest, Everton’s third consecutive draw last weekend in the Merseyside derby saw them replaced in the Premier League’s top four by Tottenham.
However summer signing Oviedo, 22, is convinced the Blues have the mental strength and attacking flair to maintain their European challenge – and can prove it by winning at Craven Cottage tomorrow.
He said: “It is very important for us to win this weekend because we what to stay in the top places. We need to win to keep close to the Champions League positions.
“But we have a very good team, very strong defenders and good players in midfield and attack.
“The team has a strong mentality. We have come back from being 1-0 and 2-0 down in recent games and the team is very united.”
The left-sided Costa Rican international is having to bide his time when it comes to first team opportunities at Goodison with the formidable duo of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar ahead of him, but he impressed during a brief cameo in last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool.
And if he gets the chance to feature against Martin Jol’s men, his friendship with international team-mate and captain Bryan Ruiz will be put firmly on hold.
“It is nice to play against Bryan,” said the former FC Copenhagen player. “I talk with him a lot and we are the only two Costa Rican players in England. We need to win and take the three points.
“I spoke to him before I joined Everton and we still speak on the telephone. I congratulated him on the goal (he scored against Reading last weekend). He is a very good guy and our national team captain. He is a good person.
“I spoke with him two days ago too, he told me Fulham need the three points but I told him it is the same for Everton. Maybe after the game we will swap shirts.
“I think Fulham has good attacking players; Berbatov, Bryan and Rodallega are good players so we will need to be careful.”
IT has been a week for reflection on Merseyside, with the ashes of last weekend’s derby clash still smouldering in the background.
The battle for the moral high ground in the days since the 219th meeting of Everton and Liverpool has been as fiercely contested as last Sunday’s 2-2 Goodison Park draw.
The fire was stoked – please pardon the pun – briefly by the post-match words of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, and dampened somewhat by his subsequent retraction.
The emotion of derby day in this city can get to even the most experienced of campaigners, it seems. How else would you explain Phil Neville’s yellow card for diving?
Phil Jagielka, for his part, has viewed the fallout with something approaching bemusement. A laid back individual at the best of times, the England international is not for inflammatory headlines or public wars of words. His response to Gerrard’s “long ball” claims earlier in the week were, typically, respectful, considered, free of controversy.
Less than 48 hours have passed since that derby contest when Jagielka rolls up to a Belle Vale supermarket. He admits he is still feeling the effects of a gruelling Sunday.
He is here as part of the Topps Match Attax tour, and spends over an hour posing for photographs, signing merchandise for supporters young and old. Even the teenager in the ‘Gerrard 8’ Liverpool shirt.
And, naturally, derby talk is still high on the agenda. In particular, Luis Suarez’s disallowed stoppage-time goal.
“I’ve been told by many people who watched it that it was a great game to watch,” says Jagielka. “Well it wasn’t the best game to play in, I can tell you!
“It was a decent point for both teams, I think. Obviously they’ll feel a little bit aggrieved with the goal being chalked off for offside when it wasn’t. It was fantastic timing from Suarez, but unfortunately for him the linesman thought he was a little bit too quick!
“The angle I was at, (Sebastian Coates) headed it back across and in the corner of my eye I could see the linesman. You’re praying for the flag to go up, but my prayers were answered. We were delighted to come away with a point, because it could have been a lot worse.”
The Suarez controversy, of course, proved to be the headline-stealer from a memorable contest. It made for an explosive finish, but for Everton the focus could be more on their beginning to the game as, for the third Premier League fixture in a row, David Moyes’ men found themselves trailing early on.
It is credit to their spirit and belief that in each of those games they have recovered to take a point, but Jagielka, a fierce self-critic, is eager to put a stop to the Blues’ defensive charity.
“It’s just one of those things,” he says. “We don’t like the fact that we are conceding too many goals at the moment, regardless of the timing of them.
“We’ve been a little bit unlucky with deflections and what have you, but at the other end of the spectrum we got very lucky with the goal that was chalked off against Liverpool.
“Obviously we are not happy conceding goals, any goal, but sometimes there is nothing you can do. You look at the early goals we have conceded in our last two games, one shot (at QPR) Tim Howard is going to throw his hat on, and the next (Suarez) one is going to go wide towards the corner flag.
“The other side is that we are showing resilience to get back into games. We’ve scored a lot more goals and created more chances than we have in previous seasons.
“That may be because we’ve had to because we’ve conceded early and had to come back, but in other games we’ve started well, scored goals, and looked to go on and score more. Maybe in previous seasons we might have perhaps shut up shop and tried to defend our lead.
“But the way the squad is set up now, the players that we’ve got, it is more suited to playing a little bit more expansive football. That is bringing with it more goals, but just at the moment we’re maybe conceding a few too many, too.”
To be fair to Jagielka, he needn’t be too defensive of his side’s clean sheet record. Only Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have conceded fewer goals this season than Everton.
And with the likes of Nikica Jelavic, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith all in sparkling form at the other end, the Blues have been content to play on the front foot in any case.
“It does take a bit of pressure off, to have those attacking players,” Jagielka says. “If you can look around and see four or five team-mates that could potentially create something or score you a goal, then it takes the anxiety of making a mistake away a bit, which can only be positive.
“I think it changes the mentality of not just the defenders but the whole team. Going behind early on, we know that we will create chances and that we have players who can put them away too.”
Jagielka is expected to continue his record of having played every minute of every league game for Everton this season when the Blues travel to west London to face Fulham on Saturday afternoon.
He says he feels “as fit as ever” following the frustrations of last season, when a knee injury cost him his place in David Moyes' starting line-up. He missed the FA Cup semi-final with Liverpool at Wembley as a result.
Now, though, he has re-established himself as one of Moyes' indispensables. And his focus now is on helping his side maintain their push for a top-six finish this season.
“We are desperate to get back to winning ways, and get creeping back up that league,” he says.
“We didn't win at Fulham for years and years, but we've gone down there the last couple of seasons and picked up a result, be it a draw or win.
“They've started off really well. Martin Jol is a really good manager, and he is proving now what a good coach he is.
“It's his team now. He's got quite a few players in over the last year or so, and he has made some fantastic signings. Obviously Dimitar Berbatov has hit the ground running, especially at home, so we are fully aware of how hard it is going to be come Saturday. But we are up for it, and very confident, as we always are.”