x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Everton ready for litmus test

"Macclesfield", joked David Moyes when asked his preferred opponent in the FA Cup semi-finals.

Louis Saha, blue shirt, powers in Everton's goal against Middlesbrough.
Louis Saha, blue shirt, powers in Everton's goal against Middlesbrough.

MERSEYSIDE // "Macclesfield", joked David Moyes when asked his preferred opponent in the FA Cup semi-finals. The identity of Everton's adversaries was soon revealed, and proved altogether more intimidating: Manchester United. Chelsea meet either Arsenal or Hull City in the other tie, with a London derby widely forecast.

With four of the Premier League's top six likely to be at Wembley on the weekend of April 18-19, it represents the strongest semi-final line-up since 1996. Yet there is still the sense that Everton, confronted by a side in pursuit of an unprecedented quintuple, have the toughest draw. As Phil Neville, one of three United alumni at Goodison Park, said: "We have had to do it the hard way. If any team deserves to be in the semi-final, it is us."

That is indisputable. Drawn away at Anfield in the fourth round, they have since overcome Liverpool, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. Indeed, the only two members of the country's leading six who have been eliminated have perished at Goodison Park. Middlesbrough belied their lowly league position to pose problems before going down 2-1. They were leading at half-time, when a combination of Moyes' invective and the introduction of the match-winner transformed the tie.

Louis Saha, another former United player, headed the decisive goal from Steven Pienaar's cross. "Louis came on and gave us a bit more strength and a bit more structure," said Tim Cahill, the Australian international who retreated into midfield after operating as an auxiliary attacker in the first half. Much as Everton have displayed their resourcefulness to make a virtue of their shortage of strikers over the last months, they were grateful for the appearance of an out-and-out forward. Cahill added: "We have called him King Louis since he's come here.

"To have a person of Louis' stature in our club is something we really appreciate. We aspire to win medals like he did at Manchester United." Six minutes after Marouane Fellaini converted Cahill's cross, Saha's fifth Everton goal - Louis V, perhaps - completed a rapid turnaround. It was no coincidence that both goals were headers. Few sides possess as much aerial muscle as Everton. Yet, even lacking the silken touch of the sidelined Mikel Arteta, the quality of the delivery from the flanks accounted for their threat.

That is allied with a work ethic and an honesty. The captain Neville admitted: "The first half was one of the poorest performances of our season." They trailed to David Wheater's goal, before a response left Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate lamenting his side's naivety. "Did we do enough as a team to win the game? Probably not, that is what we must look at," said Southgate. Everton, meanwhile, are becoming noted for their fearlessness as United may discover. "This will be a big test for us because they are the best team around," added Saha.

Such tests, thus far, have been passed in admirable fashion. rjolly@thenational.ae