Everton head into the first of five weekends that could disrupt the powers of the Premier League elite.
Roberto Martinez takes his charges to north-east to face Sunderland on Saturday in a clash that could have huge consequences for the futures of both clubs.
While Everton will be hoping for a repeat performance of their comprehensive 3-0 demolition of north-east rivals Newcastle, Sunderland find themselves rooted to the foot of the table and seven points adrift of Premier League safety, albeit with two games in hand.
Last weekend’s visit of Arsenal to Goodison Park was described as a showdown for fourth place but despite Everton coming out easy 3-0 victors- putting in a classy performance in the process- the majority of national pundits and commentators still see the Gunners in the driving seat.
The Toffees are just one point behind Arsenal in fifth but victory in their game in hand against Crystal Palace on Wednesday would see them leapfrog Arsene Wenger’s side. But that this assumption of victory not only does Palace a disservice, but tomorrow’s opponents Sunderland who are they only team to beat Everton on their own patch this season.
The game in hand on Wednesday will only have the same meaning should Everton emerge with three points from the Stadium of Light. As such Everton supporters should approach the rocky road to the Champions League with caution. Both teams have to take each game as it comes and looking ahead to hypothetical wins is a dangerous game.
That said, it is admittedly difficult not to let excitement get the better of you. Everton were overwhelming against their fourth place rivals on Sunday and a sequence of six wins in six league games sees Martinez’s men come into form at just the right time. If Everton want to see themselves walking out to that famous anthem next season, they simply must keep winning.
Leon Osman is Everton’s only fresh injury doubt as he recovers from a nasty cut to the eye sustained in Sunday’s win. Phil Jagielka may be fit enough to make the bench but is more likely to be saved with two games in five days approaching.
It’s been a troubling season for Mackems as far as league proceedings are concerned. They’ve spent all season languishing at the wrong end of the Premier League table, starting with the disharmony that characterised Paulo di Canio’s controversial tenure through to Gus Poyet’s current reign.
The Black Cats have failed to win a game since their emphatic 3-0 win over rivals Newcastle at St James’ Park (then again, everyone’s doing that this season). That win on 1st February marked their first double over Newcastle since the 1966/67 season and a run to the League Cup final suggested Poyet was steering them into another season of top-flight football.
But since then they’ve earned just one point, a goalless draw at home to Crystal Palace. Part of the problem for Sunderland is that they’ve completely miss-fired since that derby win which had pundits singing the praises of Fabio Borini and Jack Colback, and even prompted calls for Adam Johnson to be called up for the England World Cup squad.
They’ve scored just four goals since then, and have not managed to score more than once in any of those games. At the other end they’ve conceded 15 goals in those seven games, including five in Monday’s game at Tottenham.
When he took over, Poyet lapped up the plaudits for getting his side playing with belief and even drew praise from some quarters for the way they went about it. But Poyet must take the good with the bad, and at the moment it’s very bad with the Mackems staring relegation in the face.
Players with the craft and decisiveness in the final third need to find their touch again if Sunderland are to avoid the drop.
Likely Line Ups
Sunderland– Mannone; Bardsley, Brown Cuellar, Vergini; Alonso, Cattermole, Ki, Johnson, Bridcutt; Borini
Everton– Howard; Baines, Distin, Stones, Coleman; Barry, McCarthy; Mirallas, Barkley, Deulofeu; Lukaku
Romelu Lukaku- it’s true at the moment that goals are in no short supply at Everton and the team are by no means reliant on Lukaku’s goals, despite what you might read in national media.
But Lukaku is in good goal-scoring form having scored five goals in seven since his return from injury in March. The Belgian was deployed as a right-sided forward against Arsenal, a shrew move from Martinez which baffled his Arsene Wenger and allowed him to cut in and fire home Everton’s second goal on Sunday.
It’s likely the striker will be reverted to his usual central role against Sunderland on Saturday and Everton’s leading scorer is likely to thrive against a defence which has leaked 53 goals already this season. Lukaku has a clear-cut chance conversion rate of 58%; one stat Mackems will want to avoid.
Adam Johnson- if Sunderland are going to get themselves out of this mess then they’ll need a source of goals. Johnson is Sunderland’s leading scorer with eight goals, putting strikers such as Borini and Steven Fletcher to shame. But the north-east born winger has that proverbial ‘X-factor’ which might just win the Mackems points they might not necessarily deserve.
On his day the ex Man City man is a real handful, attempting 67 dribbles this campaign, completing 35 of them. Johnson has also assisted four goals which makes him Sunderland’s most precious source of those elusive goals.
Last Time Out
Everton 0-1 Sunderland, Goodison Park, 26th December 2013
Everton were just two games away from an incredible feat of going the entire of 2013 without losing at home in the league. Everton would later overcome the challenge of Southampton before the turn of the year but the seemingly easier task of not losing to the Black Cats was were the Blues tripped up.
Sunderland took the lead early on when Howard tripped Ki in the area following a suicidal backpass from Leon Osman. Howard was dismissed, Ki scored from the spot and Vito Mannone put in a man of the match performance to keep an Everton onslaught at bay. Everton that.