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A little magic can go a long way. Everton, huffing and puffing in the relegation zone, will look at the opposing number 10 when they meet Newcastle on Sunday, and wonder what might have been if only Michael Owen had opted to join a sleeping giant in the north-west rather than the north-east.
Not even the most blinkered Tynesider would claim his side is playing well at the moment, yet in the six games that Owen has managed since joining from Real Madrid, Newcastle have lost just once. He has scored four times, but, more than that, his very presence has seemed to energise the side. Contrast that to the moribund sloggers at Goodison, who have managed just four goals between them all season.
Goals always looked like being a problem for Everton this season, and it is David Moyes’ failure to sharpen his side’s strike force over the summer that has drawn the most criticism. Although they were linked with Owen, Peter Crouch and even Luis Figo, their biggest summer signings ended up being Phil Neville and the Danish defender Per Kroldrup.
Given the fanfare that had greeted their frankly startling qualification for the Champions League the previous season, it was hardly the exotica of which fans might have dreamed. Moyes, buoyed by the best set of financial results in the club’s history, has vowed to spend in the January transfer window, but the sense is that, by then, the opportunity will have been lost.
In August Everton, dreaming of qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League and the estimated £20m that brings, seemed to be entering a bright new age. By January, their focus is likely to extend no further than avoiding relegation. Their Champions League interest was ended by a controversially disallowed Duncan Ferguson header away to Villarreal, and a freakish 5-1 defeat to Dinamo Bucharest saw them rapidly exit the Uefa Cup as well. The draw against Chelsea at the end of October sparked a brief rally, but morale was still low enough for capitulation at West Brom last week.
The paradox is that, even if Everton are missing Thomas Gravesen, sold to Madrid last January, the squad is stronger than it was last season. Moyes’ scheme, whether through conscious caution or circumstance, has been one of gradual, unflamboyant progress. That may please the accountants, but the problem is that it still leaves him, in football terms, dealing with margins. Results still have to be ground out and players and fans, after the glories of last season, seem to be finding the need for continued attrition difficult to come to terms with.
Last season Everton won 14 games by a single goal; this season they have already lost six by one goal. It wouldn’t take much - a refereeing decision, a lucky bounce, the dancing feet of Owen - to turn that round. Everton aren’t actually worse than they were last season, they’re just playing like it. Newcastle, meanwhile, are already enjoying their own transformation.