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Strong at the back: Why Everton look well covered in defence next season

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Alcaraz and Duffy could provide timely competition next year.

Mark Runnacles

With the Europa League looming large next season one of the biggest challenges for Roberto Martinez this summer is to build a squad that can cope with the extra games.

Everton have one of the smaller squads in the league as it is and will be desperate to avoiding wasting this year's good work by struggling in league games directly after European trips.

What makes Martinez's challenge all the more difficult is that limited budget he will again have to work with.

Sure, he could go and sign 5-6 players on the cheap quite quickly, but they have to be of sufficient quality as to not dilute the ability of the overall team.

Therefore the balance between quality and quantity is a delicate one and something that will require some thought over the summer.

Sometimes, however, the answers to your problems are often closer to home than you realise, which brings me nicely to Shane Duffy.

The 22-year-old has been at Everton since 2008 but has only made five appearances, going out on four separate loan spells.

His latest spell away from Goodison saw him relegated from the Championship with Yeovil last campaign, though he was largely praised for his performances for a side widely expected to go down anyway.

The upcoming pre-season looks very much like a pivotal moment in his career. Duffy really needs to be playing regularly and must know that if he can't do so at Everton, the time may have come for him to move on.

However, after speaking to Martinez it appears he has been given one last opportunity. Should the Irishman impress in pre-season then he may well find himself in and around the first-team squad next season, with the increase in games because of the Europa League practically guaranteeing some senior game time.

Judging by Duffy’s recent comments, though, he is all too aware this is now-or-never time for his Everton career.

"Roberto told me that pre-season was my chance to shine and he’s said to me that if I am where he thinks I am – from what he’s seen of me this season – then I’m going to be involved.

"And if I’m not, we’ll see at the end of pre-season what we’re going to do. It’s a big summer for me, it’s up to me."

Another defender looking forward to a much-improved pre-season is Antolin Alcaraz.

We didn’t get many predictions right here at RBM towers but tipping Alcaraz to be an injury-prone flop was one that were we sad to see come true.

There were fleeting moments of quality from the Paraguayan, but all too often he was rushed back to cover for injuries elsewhere and looked badly off the pace.

Alcaraz acknowledges this and accepts he endured a torrid season, but he also seemed optimistic that his latest batch of injuries is now behind him.

"On a personal level, it’s one to put behind me. It’s one to forget almost as it’s been full of negatives.

"The frustration as a player is that an injury stops you doing what you most enjoy.

"It’s almost like it is taking your liberty away from you and you become a prisoner in your own situation.

"But it’s gone now and it’s not worth looking back and feeling sorry for yourself. You have to look ahead, be positive and I’m looking forward to next season and hoping for better things.

"I took solace in that I was able to play a few games towards the end of the season and physically I came through those okay, and that is promising for next season. "What I want more than anything is to make sure that I am 100% fit, totally free from injuries and have the chance to do what I do."

If (and it’s a pretty hefty if) Alcaraz can maintain a decent level of fitness then is presents Martinez with an impressive array of centre backs to choose from, with a near perfect blend of youth and experience.

You have first choice partnership Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka, the youthful John Stones and Shane Duffy, as well as the experienced back up of Antolin Alcaraz.

That should be more than enough to cope with the demands on a European season, leaving Martinez free to spend his previous transfer funds elsewhere.