We go into this game on the back of three consecutive victories, and if we manage at least a point then we will have remained unbeaten in five games, which cover the whole of the month of October. After a disastrous beginning to the season then this is exactly what we needed. With a home game next week against Stoke City, we have the opportunity to put ourselves in a reasonable position in the league before the next international break. When we entered the last break, after seven league games, we had amassed just four points including only one victory.
We needed that break to re-charge, re-think, and work out how we could improve our performances to ensure that we did not become involved in the relegation dogfight. Of course we are not yet in a comfortable league position, and need to consolidate the recent improvement before the run of difficult games that will follow immediately after the next fortnight recess from league football. The four games that come after the interval include visits to Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool with just one solitary home game against Arsenal.
It is therefore vital to get something from the next two games, and then hope to spring a surprise or two in the tough fixtures. We then have relatively easier games at home to Burnley and Hull, and away at Swansea and Leicester. At that point we will have reached the end of 2016, and be exactly half way through the season.
At the equivalent stage last season we had 29 points. To reach a similar total in this campaign would require 19 points in the next ten games, of which just four are at home and six away, including the Everton game. That could be achieved with six wins, a draw, and three defeats, or alternatively five wins, four draws and just one reverse. Despite our recent improvement this scenario seems very unlikely, and if we can get anywhere close to our halfway points total last term then we will have done well.
Of course we improved still further in the second half of last season, with 33 points in the final 19 games to finish on 62 in seventh place. We will be looking for a similar upturn this time around.
Everton, on the other hand, come into this fixture on a run of five games without a win. Their early season sparkling form seems to have disappeared, although they still sit in sixth place in the table. Their new manager, Ronald Koeman appears to have halted their relatively poor defensive record under Martinez, especially at home, and the eight goals that they have conceded to date in all league games is the second best record in the division so far. Last season they conceded 30 goals in their 19 home games, a total only exceeded by Aston Villa and Bournemouth. This, of course, includes the three late goals that we put into their net in a dramatic comeback in March.
Their top scorer this term with six goals is, unsurprisingly, Lukaku, and he has netted eight times in eight games against us. He always seems to score against us and is a good bet to be the first goalscorer in the game. In fact he is odds-on with bookmakers to score against us at any time in the game, and given his previous record we cannot be surprised by that. We also need to beware of Cleverley, who, despite being a midfielder who does not have a particularly great goalscoring record (around 25 goals in approaching 200 senior games in his career), has scored against us for three different teams (for Wigan, Villa, and Manchester United).
If we can keep Lukaku quiet, and at the same time play with the same level of intensity and desire that we showed against Chelsea, then I am hopeful that we will get something from the game. A win would be great, but my prediction is for Lukaku to open the scoring, and then for Antonio to end his recent goalscoring drought, and the game to finish 1-1. Antonio hasn’t scored since netting five times in our opening four league games, which is surprising considering our improved performances of late. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, and I’m sure his goalless run will end soon.
I hope that Bilic retains the same team that played in midweek, and I also hope that my forecast for the result will be wrong, and that perhaps Ayew will come off the bench to score a late winner in a 2-1 victory. Perhaps the Everton players will get nervous thinking about last season, and remember our storming finish to win the game.
What are the chances?