Everton are one of several Premier League sides who look desperate for a late-season push. In Lacina Traore, the Blues might just have the man to provide it.
Since the giant Ivorian signed for the club on January 24, when he arrived on a loan deal from Monaco, the Toffees' results have seen them slump out of the race for a Champions League place. While Everton have beaten Aston Villa, Swansea and West Ham in the intervening period, their three key games, against Champions League rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Chelsea have all ended in defeat.
The dropped points and particularly the initiative ceded to their rivals has seen Everton lose ground on their competition. At the time of writing, the Merseysiders are in sixth place, three ahead of Manchester United in seventh but five behind Tottenham. Spurs sit in fifth, with 53 points to Everton’s 48.
The crucial statistic, however, is that Manchester City, who currently occupy the much-coveted fourth position, have 57 points and a game in hand on Martinez. Assuming City win this fixture (and they have won eight of their last 10), they will be 12 points ahead of Everton. Few will have actually backed Everton to have muscled their way into the top four by the season’s end, but Martinez will not be happy that, by the beginning of March, they already look out of the running.
During this mixed run, Traore has largely been a bystander, an impotent observer unable to inject himself into the fray. Injuries have all but devastated the giant striker’s time in England thus far, leaving Martinez without his services, as well as those of on-loan Romelu Lukaku, who has also had affliction to contend with.
Having arrived at the club with a hamstring injury, he made his debut in the FA Cup tie with Swansea. He scored, but was replaced after an ineffectual hour.
He has struggled to return to full fitness over the last month and has battled a number of ailments of varying degrees of severity.
Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported that the Ivorian striker has avoided surgery, but has been ruled out for “six to eight weeks.” Despite this, Martinez has stayed true to his previous statement that unless Traore was going to be absent for “two to three months” (via BBC Sport), he would be kept on at the club.
It’s touch and go, but for now, at least, the Ivorian frontman looks to have earned a stay of execution at Goodison Park.
Speaking on the club’s official website, Martinez said: "With Lacina, we've seen the specialists and we're now ready to proceed with what's going to be the best treatment for Lacina, and it's not going to be surgery, which is fantastic news.”
He continued: "It's fantastic news that he doesn't need to go down that route, as that means he's going to be available for the end of the season. We're expecting between six and eight weeks to be the period he needs to be recovering, but we're all very positive."
But is it really worth it? Should he return for the earliest possible deadline, in six weeks’ time, then he will only be present for the final four games of the Premier League season (home matches against the Manchester clubs, plus away bouts with Southampton and Hull City). He would also be available for the FA Cup final on the 17th of May, should Everton progress that far.
It would be completely understandable, given this prognosis, were Martinez to simply abdicate responsibility for Traore’s rehabilitation and send him back to his parent club, Monaco. The chances of most players being able to make a tangible contribution in this time scale are slim.
However, the 6’8'' former Anzhi Makhachkala striker is not just any old player. He possesses an X-factor that is surely convincing Martinez to retain his services until the season’s bitter end. Who knows, perhaps it will be Traore who makes a pertinent contribution in the Wembley showdown in the middle of May.
I mentioned Traore’s height above and, indeed, it’s not false to say that this is his key attribute. Beyond anything else, size disrupts; Traore’s mere presence is often enough to unsettle defences and even the most powerful and composed centre-back may well find himself unnerved by the prospect of a giant figure contesting the high balls and leaping for crosses, elbows blazing.
Imagine the prospect of a fatigued Martin Demichelis, a season to forget nearly completed, wide-eyed and terrorised by the prospect of a battle with the massive Ivorian in the FA Cup final. It’s hard not to imagine Martinez toying with these mental images when he decided to retain Traore’s services.
Considering the enduring quality of Everton’s wide players, particularly men like Kevin Mirallas, who is a mainstay in Whoscored’s list for accurate crosses-per-game, Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar, new boy Aiden McGeady and Seamus Coleman, Traore should receive the kind of service that will allow him to quickly rediscover his in-game sharpness and, Martinez will be hoping, his goal-scoring form.
Another motivating factor in Martinez’s decision to retain the services of Traore, and a reason why the towering frontman might be able to give Everton a late season lift, is his appetite. This logic is twofold.
First of all, Traore has previously made little secret of his desire to one day play in the Premier League. He has, in the past, been linked with a move to EPL giants such as Liverpool and Arsenal and surely saw this spell at Everton as an ideal opportunity to put himself in the shop window and demonstrate his wares to his potential future employers.
Injury has curtailed his progress and, to date, has cruelly prevented him from realising his potential and showing his class in the top flight.
When he returns, however, and with opportunities limited, expect Traore to be hungrier than ever to make an impact. Knowing that his window in the Premier League has been greatly reduced, don’t be surprised to see the Ivorian return with a forceful determination to make a big splash and make a name for himself. High profile fixtures against Manchester City and Manchester United, as well as a potential FA Cup final, would be exactly the kind of environment and encounter that Traore is targeting as he seeks to make something of his ill-fated spell in the UK.
Finally, the impending World Cup finals should give Traore incentive enough to attempt to insert himself within contests and make a name for himself in the dying embers of the season.
The Cote d’Ivoire have four exceptional centre-forwards, but, as things stand, Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony and Seydou Doumbia are all ahead of Traore in the national team standings.
The big man’s playing time recently has been greatly reduced—of the Elephants’ last 17 games he has started only four—and, at the time of writing, he is in danger of missing out on a World Cup place altogether.
Beyond the race for a World Cup place, however, the Cote d’Ivoire are shaping up to face a fascinating succession narrative. It won’t be long until Drogba decides to hang up his boots for the Elephants—it may even be this summer if the Golden Generation thrives in Brazil—and his abdication should see a three-way tussle for the privilege of being the Galatasaray man’s heir.
Considering the Ivorians typically play in a 4-3-3 formation, with Salomon Kalou and Gervinho flanking a central striker, there will likely only be space for one of Traore, Bony and Doumbia in the starting line-up.
Failure to make an impact with Everton and Traore might need to sit out the summer’s centrepiece occasion. Should he fail to make it to Brazil, then Traore risks allowing one of his rivals move ahead of him in the race for Drogba’s spot in the national side.
With a spell of six to eight weeks on the sidelines ahead of him, the prospect of terrorising Premier League defences and sealing a spot on the plane to Brazil may well seem some way off. However, if Traore needs any kind of motivation during his rehabilitation, the prospect of clashes with Manchester City and Manchester United may well provide it. If he needs any kind of motivation to perform during these contests, then the glances of potential buyers and the prospect of a World Cup berth ought to be impetus enough.
Perhaps Martinez knows this, perhaps he knows that come the campaign’s final four games, come the FA Cup final, Traore might be just the man to give the Blues the lift they need.