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WHEN Eden Hazard plays for Chelsea today, Everton boss David Moyes could be forgiven for thinking ‘‘if only ...’’.
For Moyes was chasing the attacking midfielder when he was a youngster at Lille. But once again the Goodison club’s lack of cash saw them miss out.
Chelsea have no such problem, and Hazard, 21, has been a sensation since his £32million move there last summer.
Moyes said: “We knew all about Hazard because of Marouane Fellaini and the Belgium boys.
“But it was always going to be biggish cash for us – and we’ve had a few like that, I can tell you!”
It hasn’t stopped Everton’s rise up the Premier League this season, fired by the signings of Nikica Jelavic, Darron Gibson and Steven Pienaar.
Moyes said: “Our football has improved and we look a threat.”
So much so that Everton are fancied for Champions League qualification.
Moyes added: “We will try to do it, but it is going to be tough.
“If anyone thinks we are a shoo-in then let me tell them – it is going to be a long, hard season!’’
Leighton Baines missed out on a place in Fabio Capello’s squad for the 2010 World Cup because he was deemed too shy and introverted. England took Stephen Warnock instead.
How times have changed. A misfit at Aston Villa, Warnock is on loan to Bolton Wanderers in the Championship, while Baines has developed into one of the most impressive left-backs in the game.
Such has been his form that when Baines steps out at Goodison Park on Sunday, with Ashley Cole on the opposite flank, it will no longer be given that the Chelsea player is the best full-back on show.
Baines’ statistics with Everton are astonishing, from his set-pieces, to his attacking thrusts and pass completion rate, to his number of tackles and interceptions.
But nothing is quite so arresting as this figure: according to the EPL Index website, which uses Opta stats, Baines was the first player in the top five European leagues this season to create 50 chances for his team. Even now, no player has created more.
This reflects not only the changing role of a full-back, and how he can be a team’s primary attacking source, but also how Baines has combined that skill with his defensive duties.
Last season he was named in the Professional Footballers’ Association team of the year, which is selected by the Premier League players. It was the first time in a decade that Cole had lost out to a fellow Englishman.
Everton manager David Moyes summed up the rivalry. “I have always said Ashley Cole is England’s No 1 left back but Leighton Baines is getting very close,” he said. “He’s kept pushing and he’s improving all the time. He’s a terrific player. He’s as close to Cole as he’s ever been. I don’t watch enough of Cole to be able to judge how he is playing but his form for England has been exceptional. Cole was head and shoulders above everyone at one point.”
Clubs are taking note. With Cole in the final year of his contract, Chelsea have joined Manchester United and Paris St-Germain in scouting the 28 year-old. It would be a surprise to see Baines at Everton next season; he is unlikely to be sold for less than £15 million.
Baines has grown up. He was homesick with England. In the past, he questioned whether he belonged in the top flight and whether he would be “found out”, initially when he did not make it at Everton first time round, then on his Premier League debut for Wigan Athletic, against Chelsea, and before his international bow.
It helps that Moyes has created the most comfortable environment for Baines to thrive within, especially when Steven Pienaar is in the Everton team.
Cole, though, must not be dismissed. Having just turned 32, and suffering from a chronic ankle problem that prevents him from training properly after matches, he is in decline. But his standards are still extremely high, as is his competitive edge.
Though a difficult character — shooting interns with air rifles, sending injudicious messages on social-media sites — Cole can be a very good team-mate. He travelled up to Leicester a couple of seasons ago to watch Chelsea defender Patrick van Aanholt make his debut on loan. On England duty, Cole changes next to Baines before training.
Baines has been deferential. Though Cole is no longer an automatic selection for England, Baines has said he cannot be regarded as a genuine challenger for Cole’s place, partly because he has no experience of the Champions League. “It must carry some weight if you’re playing in Europe’s top competition,” Baines said. He also dismissed any suggestion that he was now at the same level as Cole, who has 99 caps. “I wouldn’t have thought so. Ash has got terrific experience and he’s playing for a club that’s trying to win the league.”
Next season, Baines might be able to say the same. The gap is narrowing rapidly.
QPR boss Harry Redknapp has lined up Everton’s Sylvain Distin as an alternative to Tottenham Michael Dawson.
Redknapp is desperate to sign a new central defender in January, who can also provide leadership in the dressing-room.
Distin captained Portsmouth under Redknapp and the 65-year-old also tried to sign the Frenchman for Tottenham.
Redknapp has shown a strong interest in Dawson, who has spent much of the first half of the season on the Tottenham substitutes’ bench.
Dawson will have talks about his future with Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas, who recently he claimed he wanted to keep the former England international.
Sunderland are also interested in Dawson, which is why Redknapp has added Distin to his long list of January transfer window targets.
Everton will be reluctant to sell Distin, but they are yet to extend the 35-year-old’s contract past the end of the season and will bid to take Joleon Lescott back to Goodison on loan, with a view to a permanent move.
David Moyes believes qualifying for the Champions League will be crucial if Everton are to keep Marouane Fellaini.
The Goodison boss fears he will once again be forced to cash in on his most prized assets if he his unable to land the riches that come with a top-four finish and a place amongst Europe’s elite.
And that would mean the departure of £30million-rated Fellaini and also England defender Leighton Baines. Everton entertain Chelsea today, with the London club already being linked with a summer move for powerful Belgian Fellaini, who is serving the final game of a three-match ban.
And Moyes admitted: “I would really hope Fellaini will stay if we were in the Champions League.
“Of course, he might still go for the money on offer somewhere else, but at least he wouldn’t be going for the Champions League.
“If you want to keep your best players you need top European football because they want to be involved in that.
“I agree with Arsene Wenger that finishing in the top four is the equivalent of winning a trophy – even if you don’t get to parade silverware.
“I don’t know whether every financial problem would be solved just by qualifying.
“But, for me, it would have an absolutely massive impact in terms of keeping the players I have and bringing in new faces.”
Moyes’ own future also seems linked with whether Everton can build on a promising start that has seen them well placed to repeat the fourth-placed finish they last secured in 2005.
That season their hopes of going into the group stages were ended by a qualifying round defeat by Villarreal. And in the intervening years, financial necessity has seen Everton become a selling club.
Moyes has been at the helm for a decade, but has just five months left on his current contract.
His frustration is clear.
He said: “I would hope that if we made the Champions League, I would get an awful lot more money to spend on players for at least a couple of years.
“I think it would enable us to keep our progress going in the right direction. To really transform the club, to make things really go through the roof, we would probably need a new owner. But what worries me is that, just to keep the progress going, we need more money.
“There’s a big pay cheque coming for all Premier League clubs next year because of the new television deal. But to have Champions League money as well would be a big lift. It could really change what happens.
“I think Everton fans would definitely swap what we have got here for what Chelsea have got – because all fans want to see their team winning things.
“Qualifying for the Champions League would give us much more room to work in. When we finished fourth in 2005, I couldn’t believe the players we were offered just because we had got into a qualifier.
“But it is going to be tough and, if we are honest, we are probably big outsiders to do it because Arsenal have been very consistent in qualifying for the Champions League and Tottenham have finished fourth twice in recent seasons.
“Having said that, we need to have the dream
“That is what this game is all about.”
ARSENAL are poised to launch a £10million swoop for Everton ace Leighton Baines.
The England defender still has more than two years left on his current deal and is considered integral to the Merseysiders’ charge for a top-four finish.
But Gunners boss Arsene Wenger is a huge admirer of Baines, 28, and believes that his adventurous overlapping style would be a perfect fit at The Emirates.
Manchester United, Chelsea and Paris St-Germain have also been linked heavily with a move for Baines and Wenger is prepared to go up to £15m for the left-back.
That might well be enough to force David Moyes into selling a player who cost £5m – although the Toffees boss prefers the idea of keeping Baines to the end of the season then reviewing the situation.
Moyes, meanwhile, believes Baines has never been closer to winning his battle with Ashley Cole for the England left-back spot.
He said: “Leighton is improving all the time. He’s a terrific player, he really is.
His form for Everton has been exceptional.”
The January transfer window is to Sky Sports News what Children in Need is to the BBC. There is the same sense of giddying expectation in the studio, the same rolling news ticker at the bottom of the screen, the same sense that somebody's life will never be the same again. It's just that the money goes to less deserving causes.
The January transfer window is 10 years old and despite the fact that it has seen more than £520 million change hands (compared to the £355m raised by Children in Need over the same period) it is hard to find anyone in football who likes it or will even argue it has been decisive. There has never been a game-changing transfer in January to rival Eric Cantona's arrival at Manchester United in November 1992 or Thierry Henry's at Arsenal in August 1999.
The very first January window gave a clue as to how it would operate. There were 10 major deals and most involved clubs in the relegation zone – West Ham and Sunderland – or Leeds, who were in an advanced state of financial disintegration and had to sell to survive.
The decade has seen pitifully few hits – Jermain Defoe to Tottenham and Luis Suarez's move to Liverpool stand out. But the field is littered with misses that stretch from Hull spending £5m on an arguably terminally unfit Jimmy Bullard to the £50m cheque that took Fernando Torres to Stamford Bridge, where he contributed to three Chelsea managers losing their jobs.
Nevertheless, David Moyes last year transformed Everton in January, bringing in Nikica Jelavic from Glasgow Rangers, Darron Gibson from Manchester United and bringing back Steven Pienaar from Tottenham. Everton were 12th when the window opened and lost only two matches once it had closed. If Everton do complete their journey to the Champions' League this season, it will have begun last January.
"The key to that was that we sold Dinyar Bilyaletdinov to Spartak Moscow," said Moyes. "We got five-and-a-half million quid and we spent five-and-a-half million quid. It was that which gave us the impetus to go on. If that deal hadn't come in, I don't think we would have been doing that kind of business. Sometimes opportunities come up and you have to take them, but did I have it all planned out? Not at all.
"I don't think anybody enjoys January, partly because we are continually asked questions about it and because at Everton we have some players who would fit in very well at the top clubs." Chief among them is Leighton Baines, who has developed into one of Europe's finest left-backs and is seen by some at Chelsea as Ashley Cole's natural replacement. "But my instincts are that not many of the top clubs buy in January," he said.
Moyes is partially right. Tottenham have been the most consistent users of the January transfer window of any major club: Michael Dawson, Andy Reid, Danny Murphy, Jonathan Woodgate, Younes Kaboul, Pienaar and Defoe. Chelsea, too, have employed it, always spectacularly, sometimes effectively, especially when taking Nicolas Anelka and Gary Cahill from Bolton.
It is seven years since Sir Alex Ferguson did a long-term deal in January, and then he needed to. Manchester United had finished last in their Champions' League group and appeared to have no answer to Arsenal or the Chelsea of Jose Mourinho. Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic were rushed in and, though they were to become the core of United's defence, they began disastrously.
"It is very difficult to get a big player in January," said Ferguson. "I read that one or two clubs are after David Villa, which would be the biggest signing of the January window. You would get his profile, his experience and his time at Barcelona. He would be the one big signing but I don't see anything else. I don't see Atletico Madrid selling Falcao. I don't see any of the big clubs wanting to buy a player they can't use in Europe. It doesn't seem sensible.
"It is not an easy market because teams abroad who are involved in a relegation scrap won't do business either. You look at Fernando Llorente at Bilbao who is not getting a game and his contract is up at the end of the season. He's a target but Bilbao are sixth bottom of the league, they have collapsed. Can they afford to sell one of their biggest assets? No."