For weeks, the run of fixtures on either side of the international break have appeared a daunting task for Everton.
Away trips to Chelsea and Manchester United punctuated by a Goodison Park battle with Champions League-chasing Tottenham Hotspur suggested that, for all the progress made under Sean Dyche, the Premier League table might start to look worse before it then got better.
Yet a hard-earned point at Stamford Bridge clinched through Ellis Simms’ feel-good goal, on a weekend in which Spurs and another April opponent, Fulham, went into meltdown, mean Everton have good reason to view the coming weeks with optimism rather than fear.
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The draw at Nottingham Forest, where the Blues twice led, felt like such a missed opportunity because of what was to follow. It made the next game, against a Brentford side unbeaten in 12, feel like a ‘must win’. That sense was only heightened when Bournemouth then beat Liverpool just before kick-off at Goodison Park, leapfrogging the Blues in the process. Then there was the return of the siren and a determined performance that, through Dwight McNeil’s stunning first-minute strike, led to a vital three points. At Chelsea the positive momentum continued, this time due to a last-minute goal. Simms’ dismissal of Kalidou Koulibaly and composed finished sent the travelling fans wild, sparking scenes that have been too rare for a dedicated away following that has witnessed just one away win this season.
Simms’ first senior goal for Everton may have earned a point, but it did everything the last performance before an international break failed to do. That was the away game at Bournemouth in November, the dismal thrashing that followed defeats to Leicester City and also Bournemouth, in the Carabao Cup, in a damaging week. At the end of the league game, the last before the World Cup break, the away end was overcome with justified frustration and for the first time in Frank Lampard’s reign the relationship between supporters and the players and manager appeared under genuine strain.
That loss to Bournemouth sent the Blues into a six-week break fearing what lay beneath them. Jeopardy still exists and Everton’s position going into this international break remains precarious. But the momentum is going in the opposite direction this time. Unbeaten in three and having scored twice in consecutive away games, no team of the nine under threat of relegation have taken more points since the appointment of Sean Dyche as boss at the end of January. The lower region of the table is congested and a poor run of results would see Everton slip back into the bottom three. Yet they are also just one point off 12th.
Dyche said he had no concern that the 16-day break from that battling point at Chelsea to the next game, against Spurs, would halt his side’s momentum. Instead it gives him more time to work with the members of his squad who are not on international duty and it gives additional time for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to continue his recovery.
Dyche's preparation for the games to come has become that bit easier too following developments at the weekend. Spurs’ loss of a 3-1 lead to draw with Southampton was frustrating for Everton, but manager Antonio Conte’s post-match comments have sparked a wave of uncertainty around a club that already appeared unstable. Whether he will still be in charge when his side travels to Goodison remains to be seen but, regardless, with many of his stars departing for international action with his criticism ringing in their ears, divisions are likely to grow rather than be repaired - at least until the final days before the Everton game.
Richarlison left the pitch crying after just four minutes on Saturday and has been ruled out of Brazil’s friendly with Morocco. If he is unable to play on April 3 then it will remove the potential narrative of last season’s Everton saviour returning to condemn his old side. It also increases the chance of Arnaut Danjuma making an appearance following an 11th hour U-turn in January in which he pulled out of a deal with the Blues to instead go on loan to Tottenham. Any appearance from the Dutchman will galvanise the home crowd. Goodison Park under the lights on a Monday night will be a massive test for a team wrapped in chaos and Dyche will know the importance of striking a blow to relegation rivals by taking points in that match.
Everton then travel to Old Trafford, where Manchester United beat them in the FA Cup in January. United are enjoying a successful season but with that comes a busy schedule and they are set to play nine games in April. The Blues may have just four full days to recover from Spurs but Man United travel to Newcastle United on Sunday, April 2, host Brentford on the Wednesday and then Everton in the early Saturday kick-off. With Arsenal’s form effectively taking them out of the Premier League race and the first leg of a hugely testing Europa League game with Sevilla to follow, the Blues could play a squad under huge strain and with their next match being a bigger priority.
Then there is Fulham, who went into meltdown at Old Trafford on Sunday. The repercussions for ex-Everton boss Marco Silva for his red card are yet to be clarified but Willian, sent off for handball, will likely be available. However, the Cottagers' third sending off yesterday was Aleksandar Mitrovic and the talisman will almost certainly be suspended for the trip to Merseyside. He will miss games with relegation rivals West Ham United and Bournemouth before then, but the absence of the dangerous striker is a useful boost for the Blues too.
After that, Everton travel to Selhurst Park for what could be yet another milestone game with Crystal Palace. Palace will have decided upon who will lead them until the end of the season by then but a significant amount of pressure could be removed from a big game at the bottom if the Blues can take advantage of the opportunities now presented by the games before them.
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