DAVID MOYES has long been concerned about the strength of Everton FC’s squad. But having fretted over his lack of options, now the Goodison manager admits his overworked players could be struggling to carry the weight of expectation on their shoulders.
Such has been the inevitable repercussion of a campaign that sees Moyes’s men still battling on two fronts.
Everton aim to take a step nearer a return to Wembley when they entertain npower League One strugglers Oldham Athletic this evening in their FA Cup fifth round replay.
That a rematch is required underlines the problem the Goodison outfit have faced this season.
Having been the hunter for so long, Everton are finding difficult the transition to becoming the hunted.
It was prevalent at Carrow Road on Saturday, when what was poised to be a comfortable 1-0 victory transformed into a damaging 2-1 defeat during the final six minutes.
And Moyes admits his players are having trouble swatting aside teams which, on paper, should pose no serious threat.
“We have expectation now, and maybe we have noticed it where we’ve played against the teams below us,” says the Everton manager.
“I didn’t know this, but we’ve not had the results against the teams below us, but we’ve done quite well against the teams who are up there.
“Maybe we are finding we can’t deal with what it is to be the team that is being top and driving through. We have got to learn to deal with that.”
Norwich’s winner was the fifth time Everton had conceded game-changing goals in the last minute, the Canaries having snaffled a point at Goodison earlier this season with Newcastle United and Fulham also striking late to earn draws.
Indeed, Oldham forced tonight’s replay thanks to a controversial injury-time header from Matt Smith, and Moyes has urged his players to show greater toughness to see out games.
“Apart from five-six minutes at Norwich, we didn’t do an awful lot wrong,” he says. “I’m not saying we did everything right, but in the end we lost when we didn’t deserve too, we lost a game we shouldn’t have.
“That’s happened a few times, so it’s a concern. It’s because we haven’t killed teams off. We need to do one of two things, either kill teams off, or make sure we don’t concede.
“We have to be a bit tougher to see those games out and win games.”
Smith, who shot to national prominence with his two goals in Oldham’s 3-2 win over Liverpool in the previous round, had emerged from the bench to cause genuine menace with his 6ft 7ins frame.
And Moyes says: “He is a handful because he’s a big lad who can jump as well. I think you see that type less and less in football these days. He’s maybe a bit of a Duncan Ferguson, and maybe there’s a bit of Andy Carroll in him.
“I think Oldham won’t change their approach, they’ll try to keep playing to the big lad when they can. They’ll use him, they’ll play directly to him.”
While Everton’s players have been queuing up to dismiss suggestions of fatigue, in contrast Moyes believes the unrelenting schedule is beginning to catch up on his threadbare squad.
“Maybe the season is beginning to take a wee bit of a toll on the players now,” he adds. “I’ve always said we’ve had to be grafting at it constantly and grit it out all season, and that may be having an effect.
“But we’ll get a second wind I think soon and kick on again.
“This is maybe a part of the season when it hasn’t been too kind for us, but you can look back at every month and see we have performed pretty much brilliantly each time.
“I think maybe it’s because games are really tight too. Not many teams are scoring lots so games are really evenly balanced most of the time, and one or two bad decisions can affect the outcome.”
When Oldham were last paired at home to Everton in the FA Cup in 1990, a 2-2 draw in the first game was followed by a 1-1 draw in the rematch, the Latics then winning the second replay 2-1 at Boundary Park.
The modern era, of course, dictates the tie must be decided this evening, with Oldham aiming to replicate their shock 1-0 third round win at Goodison in 2008.
But with the winners entertaining Wigan Athletic in the quarter-finals on March 9, Everton know they need only win two home games to secure a second successive Wembley semi-final berth.
And Moyes acknowledges the FA Cup retains the power to effectively make or break a season, with the Goodison outfit still harbouring hopes of Champions League qualification.
“The Cup does galvanise the place, it is difficult to explain but it keeps you on the way up,” he says. “A good run can really lift the place, and that is what we are hoping to do.
“The Cup can change all the time, but we have an opportunity to play teams at home in the cup, but then a few years ago we beat Chelsea and then lost at home to Reading, so you never know, there are always ups and downs in the cup, we have to be mindful of that.
“I think it is a big game, because these two weeks we are in now are big weeks. Norwich was a big game in the league, and we now move into Oldham, then Reading, then we don’t know if we have a Cup game after that.
“I think we are in a period of maybe what direction our season is going a little bit, so we have to look at that and see.”