By Matt Jones
A week on from their involvement in one of the most forgettable football matches of the 2016-17 Premier League season against West Ham United, Everton are part of arguably the most important weekend of the campaign.
Sadly for the Toffees, it’s not as significant for them as it is for visitors Chelsea, who are four points clear at the top of the Premier League table. A win for the Londoners, who would then go seven ahead of city rivals Tottenham Hotspur, would surely be enough for them to clinch the title.
It won’t be a stroll for the visitors, though. While there’s been tons of analysis into Everton’s away form this term in light of that stalemate at the London Stadium, at home they’ve been sweeping teams aside in 2017, winning eight on the bounce.
So there’ll be confidence within Ronald Koeman’s side come kick off on Sunday. Granted, some results have flattered the Toffees at Goodison Park—the 3-1 and 4-0 wins over Burnley and Hull City, especially—but there’s an assurance about the Everton players on their own patch. It’ll be intriguing if that comes through against the division’s best side.
If it doesn’t, any slender hopes of finishing in the top six will be dashed completely, especially given Manchester United and Arsenal have both settled into a positive groove in recent weeks. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see an enthralling finish to the Premier League title race?
Any scrupulous looks into the previous outing at West Ham United would have required some serious concentration, as the soporific showdown in East London was one of the most uneventful matches Everton have been involved in in the Premier League.
The purpose and intensity with which this side operates with at Goodison was nowhere to be seen, as the Toffees lacked the control needed to smother a side on the road. That’s something that needs to be addressed in the summer window if this team is to make progress next term.
Thankfully, that’s something Everton fans can forget about—as if they needed any extra incentive to do so—when they head to Goodison on Sunday with a ninth consecutive home win on their minds. And you’d give Koeman’s men a great chance of picking up all three points.
It’s strange, because there are times in each of those eight wins at Goodison when Everton have coasted through matches. Yet there are spells, usually late on in games, when the team really turns it on and takes the game away from the opposition. The superior fitness of the side in the second half of the season been a massive asset.
So too has Romelu Lukaku’s ability to bully tiring defences. The striker has been a menace late in matches, slotting plenty in the second half of games at the Gwladys Street end; score on Saturday and that’s 10 in a row in L4.
All eyes will be on the forward too given the perennial speculation linking him with a move back to Stamford Bridge. After a disinterested display against West Ham, perhaps we’ll see a player keen to prove he’s worth his £100 million valuation. The burly Belgian has yet to net against his former club in the Premier League.
You have to hold your hands up to Chelsea and Antonio Conte, who have been magnificent in the top flight this season.
The 13-game winning run they put together over the festive period was remarkable and the catalyst for their rise to the summit of the table. And while they’ve suffered something of a wobble in recent weeks, culminating in the 2-0 loss to Manchester United, Conte has helped them to recover
Still, during their minor downturn some frailties have been exposed, particularly in defence, where the back three of Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta hasn’t looked quite so secure; their last clean sheet was 11 games ago. In midfield too, Conte seems undecided as to whether Cesc Fabregas or Nemanja Matic is the right partner for PFA Player of the Year N’Golo Kante.
In the final third there’s a renewed verve about Chelsea, which will be worrying for an Everton defence who were mercilessly pulled apart by the league leaders in a 5-0 loss at Stamford Bridge earlier in the campaign.
After a recent lull in form, the two men that embarrassed Everton in November have found a spark as well. Eden Hazard has grabbed two goals in two and looked reenergised in the 4-2 win over Southampton on Tuesday; Diego Costa, meanwhile, bagged a brace and set one up in this match.
The pressure is on the visitors, with Spurs sure to be watching on ahead of their north London derby with Arsenal later that day. Conte will want to see his players bag a win—that win—which sees them take a firmer grip of the Premier League trophy.
Everton XI to beat Chelsea…
Having suggested he wanted to substitute his entire team against West Ham, there’s no doubt that Ronald Koeman will be tempted to make changes for this one.
The goalkeeping situation is fascinating, although it’s likely Maarten Stekelenburg will keep his place between the sticks until the end of the campaign. The back four is unlikely to be altered with too much either given the lack of alternatives.
It’s further forward where big decisions must be made. Idrissa Gueye needs a performance having been hooked at half time in the last two games, while Tom Davies may make way for the experienced Gareth Barry after a jaded display at West Ham United.
A man who wasn’t involved against the Hammers was the on-loan Enner Valencia. After watching United’s mobile forwards disrupt Chelsea’s defence a fortnight ago, it’d be no surprise to see him in the XI at the expense of Kevin Mirallas.