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Moyes, Everton look to boost stock after sluggish start to season


Wayne Rooney may finally have ended his drought, but his boyhood club can't buy a goal at the moment. Three games into the Premier League season, Everton has scored a single goal and notched a single point. That return amounts to the club's worst start since 1999, but the biggest worry for Everton is that it has been unable to convert possession, often in dangerous areas, into goals.

Despite starting its campaign with two games out of three on the road, Everton has enjoyed most of the ball -- 66 percent on average -- and looked for all the world to be playing on home soil at Villa Park on Sunday. Everton fashioned 12 shooting chances to Aston Villa's nine, but another stat tells you more about how badly the home team was overrun in the final third: Everton earned a whopping 18 corners. So why aren't David Moyes' men getting the rewards?

It hasn't helped that Everton has twice given away early goals -- both Blackburn Rovers and Villa scored in the opening 15 minutes of their 1-0 victories. Villa defended admirably, as Brad Friedel pulled off two saves from Louis Saha -- the second in the dying moments as the ball looked destined to hit the bottom corner of the net as an equalizer. Even the woodwork chipped in, keeping out a Steven Pienaar purler after 18 minutes.

But when you're on the front foot for so much of the match, you should be able to scare the keeper more than three times. "For some reason, it's just not happening," Tim Howard said. "I don't know why, it's so hard to put your finger on."

His manager was less shy about pointing the finger at his strikers: "Jermaine Beckford is still untried," Moyes said, "and Louis Saha has gone a while since scoring in the league. So we are looking around for goals right now."

The problem is hardly terminal at this stage -- if it were later in the season, when the table is less fidgety, we might not notice. In 2005-06, Everton lost three games in March and April, scoring only once, but still finished in the Champions League spots, and a similarly barren spell in 1999 ended with two consecutive four-goal sprees. But it's reasonable to ask if Moyes has the right resources, or if he is making the most of the resources he has.

Everton has a group of established, first-rate midfielders to call upon, along with rising stars Jack Rodwell (Sir Alex Ferguson is rumored to value him at $15.5 million plus Michael Carrick) and Seamus Coleman (a fullback by trade but a handful on the wing while he cuts his defensive teeth). They're all comfortable on the ball and can generally be relied upon to find the right man when they release it; no wonder Moyes has looked to accommodate five of them at the expense of an additional striker.

Except you do wonder. Beckford and Saha (the only two of Everton's nine forwards to have taken the pitch in the league so far) linked up nicely in the preseason, combining to destroy Preston North End, which had just thumped Blackburn, in 45 minutes, but neither operates as well in the lone striker role as the out-of-favor Yakubu can. For all the grace and skill of Everton's wide play, it rarely breaks with genuine speed, which makes working the ball to an isolated target all the more difficult.

You could argue that Tim Cahill acts as an auxiliary striker in any case, but he's been quiet by his own high standards and never really threatened Friedel's goal. On a day when Everton so clearly has the beating of its opponent, it would surely be worth throwing on two genuine strikers. James Vaughan, Yakubu and the injured Victor Anichebe may not be in the manager's plans, but Moyes has adaptable French forward Magaye Gueye at his disposal, and he is capable of scaring center halves.

At the very least, introducing fellow midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov -- mercurial, yes, but rarely shy of shooting -- in Cahill's place might've forced the issue. Instead, Johnny Heitinga got eight minutes on the pitch, in which he had nothing to do.

At the end of last season there was much mirth regarding the fact that Dimitar Berbatov was matched goal-for-goal by opponents putting the ball into their own net, each scoring 12 of United's league goals to Rooney's 26. While Rooney seemed to drive the team -- 13 times he provided United's first or only goal -- Berbatov seemed more likely to ice the cake, scoring in matches already won.

The Bulgarian was linked with a move to Europe during the summer, and there were plenty of United fans happy to wave him off. But as starts to the season go, Berbatov hasn't had a bad one. Having sealed Community Shield victory with a delicious lob, he's added two more goals in the league proper and laid on Paul Scholes' drilled effort against Fulham. Comparisons with Rooney are rapidly losing value -- and would favor Berbatov for the moment in any case.

Rooney ended his five-month spell without a goal over the weekend, though it took a penalty. His tireless running (you can rarely fault Rooney for graft) was less effective than the combinations Berbatov conjured with a similarly renascent Nani; Berbatov could have scored more and flicked several balls into Rooney's path to create chances. That the $48 million striker will not live up to his reputation or his price tag at United suddenly seems less inevitable.

There were frowns among some supporters when Bolton Wanderers sent second-choice goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi on loan to Wigan this summer. Their fears were because Jussi Jaaskelainen's only backup would be 22-year-old Adam Bogdan, a Hungarian trainee Bolton took on three years ago. Jaaskelainen is always a solid fantasy soccer pick, facing plenty of shots and saving enough of them to stack up the points. Bogdan had made only one professional appearance, on loan at Crewe Alexandra last season; Bury put three past him. Bolton's bright orange goalkeeper shirt clearly wasn't designed with the redhead in mind.

So when Jaaskelainen was sent off for a ridiculous slap delivered to Roger Johnson (there are more brutal comings-together standing on a subway train than the gentle clash that provoked the Finn) 36 minutes into Sunday's meeting with Birmingham, with Wanderers a goal down and looking primed to leak more, fans could be forgiven for glancing at the lad being readied in the dugout and fearing the worst.

Despite Birmingham's adding a second shortly after halftime, however, Bogdan looked comfortable and confident -- no doubt aided by Bolton's redoubled efforts, but still, an injury-time save from Cameron Jerome won't hurt his cause. It already looks like fellow rookie David Stockdale (who was reportedly close to a call-up to England's latest squad) could keep want-away Mark Schwarzer out of action at Fulham, where it looks like he'll stay at least until January. Perhaps some of this season's most prominent breakout stars will be between the sticks.