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STEVEN PIENAAR believes Everton can still qualify for the Champions League – but insists any European football next season would be welcome.
The South African midfielder reckons that the six-point gap between the Blues and fourth-placed Spurs can change quickly, although Everton must first recapture their momentum with a win against Norwich tomorrow.
However, even if David Moyes’ side is ultimately unable to break into European football’s elite club competition next term, Pienaar maintains that the Europa League would be an exciting consolation prize.
He said: “It’s not finished. There are still 12 games to go and if we can get all three points on Saturday it will be a big boost. We don’t have to focus on other teams too much though we have to make it easier on ourselves and get a win.
“We’ve had a bit of a dip and not been winning games. We’ve been scoring but we’ve just been conceding too easily which makes it hard. But we’re a team and we want to make sure we finish as high up there as we can.”
The 30-year-old playmaker featured for the Toffees the last time they were involved in European football, when they were defeated by Sporting Lisbon in the round of 32 in the 2009/10 Europa League.
And he is desperate to make a return to the continent in a blue shirt again.
“As a player you want to play in Europe,” he said. “I’d be happy to play in the Europa League and for the club it’s always good and puts them back on the map. If we do well it will give us a good feeling.
“It’s a lot of games sure, but it will also be good for the young players coming through to gain experience of playing in Europe. That would be a plus – you don’t always have to focus on the negative.
“Once you get to the knockout stages of the Europa League anything is possible. There are big teams in there, exciting games and it’s a really good cup.”
Darron Gibson is also aware that a positive result at Carrow Road on Saturday is essential if Everton are to get their European ambitions back on track.
“It's a big game,” he added. “I think if we want to kick on and get fourth place we need a win.
“We've got Manchester City and Arsenal coming up in the next few weeks and they're two massive games as well. I think if we could get three points at Norwich on Saturday it would be a big result.
“It's a tough place to go and we found it tough last year. The fans get behind them and it's a tight ground with a tight pitch. But I think if we play the way we've been playing and we get a bit of luck, I think we'll get a result.”
AT TIMES they have seemed almost unstoppable – and even prompted Fulham boss Martin Jol to compare Everton to Barcelona earlier this season.
But the incessant menace posed by Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar has finally prompted opposition managers to take special measures to combat them, and recent weeks have seen their fluid partnership lose some of its potency.
Alex Ferguson paid the duo perhaps the ultimate compliment at Old Trafford when he ensured that his title-chasing Manchester United paid extra attention to halting them, and even Oldham Athletic boss Tony Philliskirk found a way to limit their efficiency.
But Pienaar has a defiant message for anyone who thinks the pair are ready to surrender their tag as the Premier League’s most deadly left-sided partnership any time soon.
“It is hard but we just have to keep going and going, simple as that,” says the former South Africa captain.
“Sometimes the opposition’s plan will work for 80 minutes but then there might be one slip-up and we get through and create something.
“We’ll always keep going no matter how many players the opposition put on our side of the field.
“We try to make sure we keep our composure and don’t get frustrated.
“We’ll try to make it as exciting as possible for the supporters, because at the end of the day they pay a lot of money to come and watch us and they want to see good football. We try to give them that.
“Sometimes it doesn’t come off but we keep going.”
Pienaar admits that the partnership is largely an intuitive and unscripted act, which must be supported in other areas of the team.
“Sometimes we ask the assistant manager to have a look at how it can work for us before a game,” he says.
“Some teams overload the left hand side and the manager will look to try to find a way to get out of that and use it to our advantage.
“That’s why it’s also important that we have the likes of Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas fit who can bring us a lot of attacking threat for the team.”
With 27 games under his belt already so far during this campaign, Pienaar’s own performances arguably dipped below their usually exquisite standards in Everton’s last two Premier League fixtures – a draw with Aston Villa and that defeat by United – but he was approaching top form again in the FA Cup at Boundary Park despite the frustrating outcome.
That setback, which means Everton must face the Latics again at Goodison on Tuesday, was particularly infuriating for the playmaker who admits that the replay will be another 90 minutes David Moyes’ men could do without.
“We put ourselves in a difficult position,” he says.
“We didn’t want another game as a team because we don't have the biggest squad, and also the game is coming on Tuesday so it’s quite close to the Norwich game.
“But we’re professionals so we just have to deal with it.
“The Norwich game is our priority but then we’ll think about the cup.”
Pienaar believes that Everton allowed nerves to creep into their late defending against Oldham, and ultimately left themselves vulnerable at the last-gasp.
“To concede in the last minute of the game is really terrible,” he adds. “We’ve done the opposite during this cup run and won at Bolton so I know how that feels, but it was sad what happened at Boundary Park because we had the experience out there not to concede and to get the job done.
“Sometimes the players get tense.
“You know they have already beaten a Premier League team and even though you’re 2-1 up and it’s nearly the end of the game it’s in the back of your head. Now we’ve got a good chance to set it right when they come to Goodison.
“We want to win something and if you look at how the FA Cup has been going this season we’ve got a good chance.
“Manchester United could end up playing Chelsea and that would be another big one that could drop if we go through.
“Also that would be the shortest way to European football. We’re determined to carry on.”
(Howard Kendall column)
KNOW the galling last minute equaliser for Oldham left many Everton fans watching the cup tie last Saturday feeling like it was a defeat – but the priority for those games always has to be being in the draw for the next round.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit I was confident in the extreme that the Blues would sail through, so it was a frustrating setback to concede in the 95th minute.
From a tactical point of view it was a tough one for Everton. I agree with David Moyes that there was a foul on Tim Howard during the penultimate corner, and then Oldham blitzed us again.
Maybe you’d say Everton should have left two players further up the pitch to persuade Oldham to keep three back but at that point the League One side would been thinking 3-1 is just as bad as 2-1 and may have left 11 players in our area anyway.
Overall the key was still being a going concern when the draw for the quarter-finals took place, so that was some consolation.
Graham Taylor obviously doesn’t hold any grudges against Everton despite that FA Cup final defeat because he plucked us out a home draw.
Getting a Premier League team like Wigan isn’t the best draw in the world but at the same time Moyes’ men avoided Manchester United and Chelsea so it could have been worse.
The focus will switch back to the league and a trip to face a Norwich side who might not be flying high in the table, but certainly have a striker in Grant Holt who can cause any defence problems.
He seems to like scoring against Everton so no doubt Moyes will have prepared his defence for a tough afternoon, or they will have the less predictable challenge of Carrow Road new boy Luciano Becchio. Either way, it’s a test.
I’M pleased that it seems as if Shane Duffy will get more of a chance to play should anything happen to Phil Jagielka or Sylvain Distin in Everton’s central defence.
I think the lad looks like a natural centre-back who was born to play in that role, while I just can’t say the same about John Heitinga.
For me the Dutchman’s best position is holding midfield and you don’t really want him defending too much in the penalty area because, although he works hard, he tends to commit himself too much.
The big tests in the Premier League these days are facing up to big, powerful centre-forwards and Heitinga hasn’t won too many battles in that respect outright this season.
His attitude seems right when he’s on the pitch and he obviously wants to be involved and do his best for the club and I think he’d offer more alongside Darron Gibson sitting in front of the defence.
Gibson is a wonderful player and I suspect Heitinga would thrive on the chance to complement him and get on the ball a bit more. It’s not easy being out of the team though so I hope he keeps his chin up in the meantime.
Another person I’m sending all my best wishes to is my friend and ex-Blue John Bailey, who has been in hospital. I hope he gets well soon.
I WONDER what Mick McCarthy made of the Swansea side that ran out to face Liverpool at Anfield last Sunday?
You may ask what relevance it has to him – but Michael Laudrup made seven changes to his line-up to face the Reds with the Capital One Cup final this weekend in mind and it had a predictable effect on his side’s performance as they lost 5-0.
Wolves were fined £25,000 when McCarthy made 10 changes to his team for a game against Manchester United in 2009 and lost 3-0 – something which the Premier League board saw fit to punish.
It really sends the wrong message out – especially to the first team players you do ask to play in the supposedly ‘weakened line-up’.
A decade ago James McFadden was Berti Vogts’ cheeky boy. The German awarded him his first cap for Scotland as a teenager and his description of the Motherwell forward was as much attributable to an outgoing character which saw him sport a scarlet streak through his hair as to his extravagant footballing gifts.
Unfortunately, McFadden would be better described as the seldom seen kid in recent seasons as a succession of knee injuries took their toll and reduced him to an irregular series of cameo appearances.
He was released by Birmingham City in 2011, returned to Goodison for a largely fruitless campaign with Everton and his short-term deal with Sunderland ended in January after only three substitute appearances for Martin O’Neill’s side.
The 29-year-old, who rejected a contract offer from Motherwell last summer, has subsequently returned to his roots in order to revive his career and came off the bench to popular acclaim during Tuesday’s 1-0 home defeat by Dundee United.
It remains to be seen whether McFadden still possesses the sharpness of old, the change of pace which allowed him to make defenders look foolish and finishing look easy.
What is not in doubt, though, is the self-belief which courses through every fibre of his being. He may not have completed 90 minutes for 27 months but he feels confident enough to suggest that a recall to the national team for next month’s World Cup qualifying matches is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
“Is Scotland unfinished business for me?” he said. “Definitely: I can’t end my Scotland career on that note. I am only 29 so if I can get back playing games I feel as though I can still add to the party for Scotland “It would mean everything to me. When I was a young boy, one cap would have been enough for me. But the fact that I am two caps short of 50 makes that a big ambition.” Asked whether the ties against Wales and Serbia would come too soon for him, he refused to rule out an immediate return to representative action.
“I don’t know – if I get a run of games for Motherwell, then it’s up to the manager,” he said. “If I’m doing well, then it wouldn’t be too soon in my mind. The manager might feel differently.
“You talk about me coming into the Motherwell squad and maybe upsetting people and having to put them out of the team or under pressure.
“I think the last Scotland squad had a lot of good players so it’s kind of the same situation. If he [Gordon Strachan] feels he needs me, then I believe I can still add to the Scotland team. If he picks me, then I’d be absolutely delighted.”
McFadden claims the only thing he is lacking at the moment is match fitness and he hopes to have that remedied by the time Strachan names his squad next month.
“There are no mental hurdles,” he said. “I have got it set out in my head. I feel good in training, I can move the way I used to move: I just need to play games.
“You can get as fit as you like in training and try your hardest but it is not the same as playing. You need to push your body like you can’t do in training.
“I want to come off the pitch feeling knackered and drained and want to sleep for days. That is the feeling I want.
“The knee is fine. Obviously I have to manage it differently from before but it’s absolutely fine I’ve hardly missed a day’s training in the last year and if I have it’s been nothing to do with the knee. I just need to build up my match fitness and the rest will come from that.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re injured or you’re just not playing, your confidence does go but it’s amazing how quickly you can get it back. A couple of good bits of skill or a good pass or whatever in a game and it lifts you a bit and you build on that.” McFadden was clearly touched by the rapturous reception he received on Tuesday from supporters who first idolised him at the turn of the millennium.
He is the type of player who thrives on that kind of adulation and he can hardly wait to start playing to the gallery at Fir Park once again.
“I didn’t expect anything less from them because they’ve always been great with me,” he said. “It was a good feeling to feel wanted again and I’m looking forward to playing for them.
“Obviously I don’t have a magic wand and I’m not going to be able to do everything myself. I’m not saying that everyone’s expecting that anyway because the team’s been doing really well and they are a great bunch of lads.
“They know what they’re good at and they know what it takes to win games. But I want to add to that: I want to come in and play a part and make a wee bit of a difference in games when I’m needed to make a difference.” McFadden became the Tartan Army’s talisman because his flamboyance was matched by his effectiveness: he was both workhorse and show pony, as 15 goals from those 48 appearances testify.
However, even his unshakeable self-belief was dented when, during his rehabilitation from the anterior cruciate ligament damage he suffered in September, 2011, he was informed by his surgeon that he might not play again.
“I was meant to come back after six months,” he explained. “I was ahead of schedule and ready to return but it wasn’t right. I went to the specialist again at the end of the season.
“That was after about eight or nine months. I went for a clean-up because I had a lot of fluid and pain but I still trained.
“It was only supposed to be a two-week recovery but I came round from the operation and the specialist said he wouldn’t be able to tell how it was for another three months.
“He couldn’t even tell me if I was going to play again at that point. It wasn’t what I was expecting. That [led to] another six months of recovery for a clean-up operation. That was the toughest point for me.
“I have four young children and it is amazing how much pressure they can take off you: they make you realise that there are more important things in life.
“My wife and my family are the ones who got me through it. I have a determination to get back playing football and show everybody that I can still do it.
“I think if I play three or four games then you will see the best of me.”