Everton look to avoid FA Cup third-round upset as injuries mount
After an impressive and morale-boosting 2-1 win in the Capital One Cup against Manchester City on Wednesday, Everton switch attention to the FA Cup and a third-round tie against Dagenham and Redbridge on Saturday.
There may be 79 places separating the two sides on the league ladders but Everton know better than most how problematic lower league opposition can be in this competition. The 3-0 humbling at home to Tranmere in 2001 lingers long enough in the memory to remain a cautionary tale for potential cup upsets, so too do more recent home exits in this competition, such as Oldham in 2008 and Reading in 2011.
Roberto Martinez needs his team to play with the same intensity, commitment and quality displayed under the Goodison lights earlier in the week. The tendency is to drop performance levels against so-called lesser opponents but Everton cannot take such liberties at present. There is no room for complacency.
While recent years point to above average performances in this competition -- Everton have reached a final, a semifinal and two quarterfinals since 2009 -- they also reveal near misses and spurned opportunities. The past two seasons under David Moyes saw chances go begging in a 2012 semifinal defeat to Liverpool and 2013 quarterfinal humbling at home to Martinez's Wigan in 2013.
The trick for Martinez is balancing the need for victory with squad rotation. In a January with seven matches in 25 days, utilising the squad is vital, particularly with the League Cup semifinal second leg rounding out this seven-match month.
With that in mind, changes always appeared likely for this FA Cup fixture -- especially with a league trip to the Etihad to follow on Wednesday, the second of three matches against City this month -- but the Blues' boss might have his hand forced as Everton contend with injuries.
In almost typical Everton fashion, two of the three injuries acquired in midweek are at positions for which there is little to no available senior cover. This is a strong squad but nevertheless one still short in a handful of key areas.
Romelu Lukaku limped off and, though his injury does not appear serious, he is unlikely to feature. This should see a rare start for Arouna Kone in his preferred position. With Tom Cleverley doubtful, having succumbed to injury for the second time in three matches, there could be opportunities for Darron Gibson and Leon Osman in midfield, with their prospects enhanced by the need to rotate Gareth Barry and Ross Barkley out of the team. These two influential figures are near-constant presences in all competitions and this makes them likely candidates for a weekend rest.
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Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas will look to build on recent increased involvement with a start on the flanks, while there could also be a return to the squad for the injury-hit Steven Pienaar, who has not appeared for the first team since April. Joel Robles is expected to continue in goal and the likes of Brendan Galloway, Aiden McGeady and Steven Naismith may figure in the squad.
Outside of juggling his squad, the main concern for Martinez is coping without Seamus Coleman. The right-back looks set for three to four weeks out with a calf injury and there are few viable replacements in the current setup. Utility Tyias Browning is out for the season after knee surgery, while experienced alternative Tony Hibbert has suffered with injuries in recent seasons and last played for the first team in December 2014.
Blooding one of the Under-21 players is an option. Matthew Pennington played 45 minutes in the League Cup win at Barnsley back in August, while summer signing Mason Holgate was an unused substitute in the same match. Opting for youth would be a risk, though, and so a first-team remedy seems more likely, albeit meaning a player operating out of position.
John Stones could shift across from centre-back, although to move Stones is to deny the team his qualities in central defence. However, the return of Phil Jagielka makes this a practical if undesirable choice.
Whomever Martinez settles on, both in the right-back position and elsewhere, has to match the mark set by Muhamed Besic in the past two matches. The combative midfielder had played one League Cup match and nine minutes of league football when injury struck during the 3-1 success at home to Chelsea in September.
Biding his time since returning to fitness, Besic made his first appearance in almost four months as a substitute in the Boxing Day win at Newcastle. Unused in the 4-3 defeat to Stoke, Besic changed the game from the bench in the 1-1 draw against Tottenham and built on that with a man-of-the-match display on Wednesday. Besic made the most tackles (six) and most dribbles (five) as his familiar all-action style left a clear imprint on the semifinal first leg.
This is the example for teammates to follow. Many within the squad are in a similar position to Besic, waiting patiently for a chance, be it after injury or merely a lack of game time. Those on the fringes must seize their chance in the same manner.