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Dec 2, 2009

Moyes struggling through Toffees' sticky patch

David Moyes has had better weeks. An eight-day spell that began with Everton's habitual loss at Old Trafford and ended with a dispiriting derby defeat bookended a dreadful first half at Hull and the latest rejection of a bid to build a bigger stadium.

Factor in some rumours swirling around Merseyside that Moyes was willing to walk out on the club he has managed since 2002 and it amounted to an unwelcome picture for Evertonians. Those reports were swiftly denied, but there were enough reasons for a lesser man to start contemplating his future.

The government's refusal to allow Everton to move to Kirkby means they are condemned to life at Goodison Park, where an old-fashioned atmosphere is matched by distinctly old-fashioned revenues. It gives Everton an immense disadvantage for the immediate future, especially as chairman Bill Kenwright is unable to bankroll the club.

Compare and contrast with Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City and the challenge may be the same but the context has rendered it more difficult.

Then there has been the decline in results. Over seven-and-a-half years at Goodison Park, there has been a constancy about Moyes that has enabled him to get a consistent response from his players. Unlike other clubs trapped in a cycle of boom and bust, Everton, with three successive top-six finishes, sustained their efforts over several seasons.

The current campaign, however, appears an exception. Frustration has been evident in the manager's comments. With injuries about the only ever-present at Goodison Park - and indeed elsewhere on Merseyside - selection has been determined by a simple case of fitness. But that has been the case before and Everton have produced. This time, they have not.

A manager with a no-excuses mantra has not made himself exempt from the blame. "I have to do better," has been one refrain. More significantly, some of his players have to perform at a higher level. Were others available, he would have had the option of dropping the underachievers. As it is, many have been guaranteed a place in the team.

Joseph Yobo may be the most prominent example. The Nigerian has been involved in each of the last five Premier League goals Everton have conceded, even if he wasn't necessarily culpable for all. With Phil Jagielka still sidelined, however, he has been all but certain of a start.

Tim Cahill is another who has deputised as captain of late. If a spate of bookings is evidence of the Australian's commitment, less typical is a shortage of goals. With just two in his first 20 games of the campaign, it is an abnormally low return. If well-timed runs into the opposition's penalty area have been his trademark, it is pertinent that Cahill has only been averaging one shot at goal per match in the last month.

Yakubu's goal return is below par, albeit explained by his recovery from an Achilles injury. Moyes has said it may take between six and nine months for him to return to full form, but that makes it harder for Everton in the intermediate period, especially as two other potential scorers haven't delivered.

Marouane Fellaini and Jo were among Everton's more threatening players in Sunday's loss to Liverpool, when the former forced a magnificent save and the latter had two strikes disallowed. In one sense, that may increase irritation with both, because neither has proved remotely prolific in lesser fixtures. Indeed, some regular observers have posed the same question of the Brazilian and the Belgian recently: 'What do they actually do?' The answer, for too many, is 'not enough'.

It all leaves Everton looking rather reliant on the fragile fitness of Louis Saha. At least Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Steven Pienaar have returned from suspension and injury respectively to add creativity and balance on the flanks, but with Yobo's struggles and a variety of pairings in the centre of midfield, Everton's spine has, Saha and Tim Howard apart, been unusually weak.

Phil Neville has been missed as much for his leadership as for his actual ability and the injury setbacks affecting the captain, Jagielka and Mikel Arteta have hardly improved Moyes' mood. Nor, indeed, has Everton's league position.

In 16th place and with Tottenham and Chelsea their next two opponents, it is not inconceivable that Everton will end up in the relegation zone in the next fortnight.

If the squad, perhaps the finest Moyes has assembled in his time on Merseyside, was fully fit, there would be a temptation to echo Cahill's words and pronounce them too good to go down. As it is, they should be too resolute, but it was not what Moyes envisaged when he sat in the bowels of Wembley Stadium in May and discussed his ambitions to win silverware for Everton.

The goalposts have been shifted by the injection of cash at rival clubs, while Everton's remain rooted at Goodison Park. Injuries offer him no respite, while a section of his squad, unusually, is underperforming - it is enough to make even the most dedicated of managers disillusioned. Moyes won't quit, but he faces one of the most testing periods of his long time at Everton.

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