November 22, 2014 - 3:00 p.m. GMT, 10:00 a.m. EST
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If pundits had been told at the start of the season that a November matchup between Everton and West Ham United would be a matchup of teams at fourth and tenth in the table, they would not have thought much of it.
But if you told them it would be between the 4th place Hammers and 10th place Toffees, they probably would have laughed at you.
Still, that's where things stand just past the quarter-season mark. West Ham comes to Goodison Park on Saturday in a Champions League position, while Everton sits barely in the top half of the table.
Sean Yancy touched on this in a post on Thursday -- Everton's injury list is not getting any shorter. Seamus Coleman appears to be available after appearing for the Republic of Ireland over the international break, but Leighton Baines, James McCarthy, Kevin Mirallas, Darron Gibson, and Steven Pienaar are all questionable.
Gareth Barry will likely be out, and Bryan Oviedo, John Stones, Arouna Kone, and Antolin Alcaraz are still long-term injury absentees.
Sam Allardyce's shrewd moves in the last two years have propelled the Hammers to a stellar start to the season. This offseason, he added Diafra Sakho (6 goals), Enner Valencia (3 goals), Aaron Cresswell (who has started all 11 league matches) and Alex Song (on loan from Barcelona), after adding Stewart Downing (2 goals and 4 assists) and Morgan Amalfitano before last season.
After two disappointing seasons at Liverpool, Downing is enjoying a resurgence with the East London club. Allardyce has put Downing in a no. 10 role behind strikers Sakho and Valencia, and the 30-year-old Downing has profited greatly from the move.
Downing's fine form earned him an England call-up, but unfortunately for him, he picked up a knee injury against Scotland, and is a doubt for the match on Saturday. Sakho also picked up an injury over the international break, and is a doubt as well.
Sakho's injury could open the door for Andy Carroll's first start of the season.
On the other side of the pitch, Winston Reid leads a defense that has conceded 14 goals in 11 league matches.
What to Watch For
With the availability of five players up in the air, this is a tough match to predict much about.
The midfield will be where Everton would normally look to dominate a team that plays with two strikers and a diamond midfield, but with no Barry and perhaps no McCarthy as well, that plan loses its luster quickly.
A central midfield pairing of McCarthy/Besic or McCarthy/Gibson (if Gibson is healthy) would still be feasible, but if the top healthy pairing is Besic/Gibson, Roberto Martinez may opt to go with only one holding midfielder, and play with both Romelu Lukaku and Samuel Eto'o up front.
Ideally though, Everton will still have enough healthy options to try to win the numbers game in the midfield. If McCarthy can play and Everton can control the midfield, it will hopefully open up opportunities for Ross Barkley to make plays in the space allotted by a four-man West Ham midfield.
Defensively, Everton must be prepared to deal with the pace of Valencia and the strength of Carroll/Sakho. Phil Jagielka has revived his season over the course of the last month, and will be up for the challenge. Sylvain Distin, on the other hand, could be in for trouble, as his lessening pace and strength have been noticeable at times this season. If Baines cannot play, the only option is to play Luke Garbutt at left-back, which is far from ideal as well.
Whoever ends up playing as the holding midfielder(s) will have to be on his/their game to help deal with the threat of the two strikers.
With West Ham on the road and missing its top playmaker, the Hammers will probably look to play direct, testing the Everton center backs in the air early and often.
The Final Word
Injuries may ultimately tell the final story in this one.
How does Martinez run his midfield with so many question marks? How does Big Sam line up the Hammers with both his leading goal scorer and assist man injured? Will Andy Carroll revive the ghosts of FA Cups past?
It is tough to say. What can be said is this: with matches at Tottenham and Manchester City coming up before the holiday period, Everton needs 3 points from its home matches if the club wants to push its way out of the jumble at the middle of the table.
If that move does not start happening soon, the teams in the top six could start putting distance between themselves and the Toffees.