Mar 092014

On a rare afternoon of darkness for the Blues this season came a ray of light in north London.

Despite Mikel Arteta and Olivier Giroud ending their cup hopes, there was Ross Barkley, picking the ball up from deep with space in front of him.

Despite Roberto Martinez’s bid to become the first manager to win consecutive FA Cups with different clubs ending with a hefty defeat, there was Barkley, driving towards goal and away from Mathieu Flamini.

And despite the wait for a trophy entering its 20th year, there was Barkley, picking out Kevin Mirallas with a sumptuous ball across the box, which Romelu Lukaku would eventually tap in.

There was a fair bit to dissect after the Blues’ second consecutive quarter-final FA Cup exit, but there was also Barkley, a midfielder not long turned 20, putting in a fine performance.

Barkley has come in for unfair criticism in recent weeks. After an excellent end to 2013, injury curtailed his progress, before returning far too soon in the Merseyside derby defeat at Anfield.

Greg O’Keeffe tackled the criticism of Barkley in Saturday’s Royal Blue.

“The triple leg break he suffered on youth international duty in 2010 meant the Wavertree-born teenager’s development was stunted at a crucial phase,” he wrote.

“While his peers were progressing from the academy set-up to senior careers, Barkley – who had already been on the bench for David Moyes’ first-team – was consigned to a year of rehabilitation.             

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Arsenal FC v Everton FC: FA Cup quarter final pictures from The Emirates

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“His natural talent and hunger to succeed have propelled him fast since then. Often they have masked that wasted year.

“But when Barkley occasionally stutters on the grand stage, as he has in recent weeks, it is only natural for someone at his stage.”

There was no stutter in the sunshine on Saturday on what, in the context of the season, was the grandest stage – an opportunity to take Everton to their third semi-final in six seasons.

The scoreline does not reflect the talismanic nature of Barkley’s performance; indeed, the late, three-goal salvo from Arsenal could coincide with the midfielder, still recovering from injury, fading out of the game.

He had three shots – two of them of wonderful technique – and made 29 passes, two of them key, with a 90% accuracy.

He was not only economical in possession, but dangerous too; his crossing and long passes mostly found their targets, while his presence simply worried experienced campaigners Flamini and Mikel Arteta.

He was the underlying source of optimism on the day, and is the overriding source of optimism for the future.             

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England training session at St Georges Park, Burton ahead of the Moldova game

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His performance also alerted a nation whose World Cup bandwagon keeps chugging along.

In his Sunday ECHO column, Lee Carsley alludes to Barkley’s possible summer jaunt to Brazil.

“There’s also a World Cup on the horizon and given that Ross has figured in several of Roy Hodgson’s squads this season, he’ll be looking to book his place on the England plane to Brazil and Everton can only benefit from that.”

Yet in the Sunday ECHO, Barkley was said to be more likely to spend the summer on Crosby Marina rather than Copacabana, even though “his time will come”.

His summer status will change countless times before Hodgson names his provisional squad in May, but as things stand, he looks capable of going.

Even accounting for the past few months of battling for full fitness and form, Barkley has been one of the stand out attacking midfielders in the league.

There is no second-guessing Hodgson and just what sort of players his squad will comprise of, but Barkley would appear to be in direct competition with Southampton’s Adam Lallana, Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Andros Townsend of Tottenham.

The four are not necessarily similar in style, granted – but they are four young midfielders who would be tasked with creating chances for the strikers, whether that is from a central position or out wide.

Lallana, it must be said, should cancel all plans and get buying some flip-flops. With seven goals and five assists in 29 games, as well as an average of 1.76 chances created per match, his statistics measure up; so, too, does what he produces with the ball at his feet, drifting into space with unerring ease.

But Lallana is 25, the oldest of the quintet, and has also played over 200 league games for the Saints.

Though Barkley has played more than Townsend and Oxlade-Chamberlain, he has also performed better, scoring more than both of them, while averaging 10 passes more per game.

His chance creation – 0.88 chances created per game – is better than Oxlade-Chamberlain’s (0.38) but worse than Townsend (1.28), while he makes more key passes a game (0.9) than his Arsenal counterpart (0.4).

He is also a fond dribbler of the ball, completing 2.5 per game, which is better than both Lallana and Oxlade-Chamberlain.

There are lies and damned lies, of course. Everton’s system is different to Spurs, Southampton or Arsenal; there is no guarantee club form can be transferred onto the international stage, either.

But aside from his impressive numbers, there is also the confidence in how Barkley storms around the pitch. He is a largely unknown quantity, a potential ace up Hodgson’s sleeve – it is up to the England manager to don the right coat.

But irrespective of whether Barkley goes to Brazil or not, his talent and future is undoubted. At only 20, that he is even in the conversation shows the strides made since August.

Back then, he burst onto the scene with a wonderful goal in the sunshine against a team in yellow. This summer, history may be repeated – and his Emirates showing could be the first step towards fulfilling that.

But in the royal blue jersey, he’s been fulfilling his promise for most of the season – that cannot, and should not, be forgotten.

More Everton FC news

Read Ian Doyle’s match report following Everton’s  4-1 defeat  to Everton, while you can  re-live the entire game  on the ECHO liveblog.

Compare prices of Everton branded football boots.

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