By Matt Jones
Everton’s last visit to the Liberty Stadium was on September 19, 2015. It feels a lot longer ago than that.
Indeed, while the match was only last season, the team has undergone a significant restructuring. A youthful back four consisting of Brendan Galloway, John Stones and Ty Browning pointed towards some solid foundations, while Arouna Kone and Steven Naismith—a week on from a hat-trick against Chelsea—supported Romelu Lukaku up front.
And while Everton failed to take their chances in a 0-0 draw that day, the performance was authoritative and composed. The Toffees looked like they were back on track under Roberto Martinez after the coach’s difficult second season.
Indeed, 21 months on from that stalemate in South Wales, a completely different Everton side will rock up at the Liberty. And this time, there’s a steeliness instilled by Ronald Koeman that gives hopes of progression a little more credence.
A seventh place finish is now almost certainly the ceiling for this team, meaning a return to continental football next season. With that in mind, perhaps it’s no shock some spark has seeped away from this group in their last two outings.
They’ll be going into a hostile environment here, though, as Swansea are knee-deep in the mire. Earlier in the day, Hull City host already relegated Sunderland and three points would see them pull four clear of Swansea ahead of the evening kick off. Talk about must-win.
For Everton, three points wouldn’t be as pressing, but a purposeful showing is a must after some moribund displays on the road.
It’s also imperative that Everton pick up an away win before the end of this Premier League season to put an end to this winless run on the road.
Seamus Coleman’s late strike in the 1-0 win at Crystal Palace in January was the last time the Toffees enjoyed a victory away from Goodison Park. Some may say it’s become a major issue already for Everton; should they go winless in the final two away fixtures of the season, that’d be impossible to dispute.
The pressure is off the Toffees, though, meaning they should approach this one with ambition. At times, there’s been a tentativeness in the team’s play on the road, with the crispness and decisiveness that’s been a hallmark of their efforts on home soil absent.
It’s Swansea who should be feeling edgy in this one, after all. So keeping the ball early on, pinning the hosts back and getting shots off at goal should be the order of the day. In such emotional circumstances, the atmosphere will quickly turn from hostile to hospitable for the visitors if Everton get this right.
There are some players who need a performance here too. In the last two matches, both Lukaku and Ross Barkley have been well short of their best. The latter will see plenty of the ball and there’ll be an onus on him to conjure opportunities; the former, meanwhile, needs to offer a more dynamic presence against the division’s leakiest defence.
And if they can fire Everton to victory, the Toffees would jump a point ahead of Arsenal prior to their clash with Manchester United on Sunday. With the Gunners still to come on the final day of the campaign, three points may just about keep hopes of a top-six finish alive.
A late penalty miss for Southampton against Hull last weekend must have felt like an enormous kick in the teeth for Swansea ahead of their visit to Old Trafford. But Paul Clement’s men dusted themselves down and produced a diligent display on Sunday.
In the end, the visitors were well worth their 1-1 draw, earned thanks to a wonderful free-kick from Gylfi Sigurdsson. They even had a chance to snatch an unlikely victory in the final embers of the game, although Fernando Llorente fluffed his lines.
Still, they are set to go down as it stands and if things don’t go for them on Saturday, there’s a potential mountain to climb for the Welsh club in the final two games of the season. Hull, impeccable at home under Marco Silva, couldn’t have asked for a better fixture this weekend and, arguably, better scheduling either. If the Tigers win, there’ll be enormous pressure on Clement’s side.
Regardless of what goes on at the KCOM, the Welsh club will be confident of securing what’d be a priceless win here. Having slumped back into the bottom three after a rotten run, Swansea have come out of the other side and found a groove again.
The manner of the win at Old Trafford would have given everyone at the club a boost, while the last time they turned out at the Liberty, they were comfortable 2-0 winners over Stoke City.
That’ll make for an electric occasion on Saturday and while Everton will have faced stiffer tests in terms of the quality of the opposition this term, there’s nothing like the prospect of relegation to trigger players into life. The Toffees will need to be ready for a scrap.
Everton team to beat Swansea…
With Morgan Schneiderlin’s absence confirmed, I’ve dug out the three-at-the-back drum again and am banging hard upon it.
Mason Holgate has impressed at full-back, although has always looked more comfortable on the right of a three-man defence. Koeman may also see this as an opportunity to take a look at Jonjoe Kenny, with a decision set to be made on whether the club requires a new right-back in the summer with Coleman sidelined indefinitely.
A player ready to raid forward on the right flank may help Barkley too, as he’s been smothered without Seamus Coleman offering an outlet on the right side of him. It’d also be fascinating to see Dominic Calvert-Lewin, fresh from signing a new five-year deal, get a start in an advanced role instead of shadowing the surges of the opposition full-back.
After his horror show last weekend, it’s also surely time to end the second Maarten Stekelenburg experiment of the season.