Merry Christmas everyone. English football’s infamous ‘busy festive period’ is upon us with Everton traveling to the northeast to play Newcastle, the first of two games in 72 hours.
The Toffees go into the game under a bit of pressure after last weekend's defeat to leaders Leicester, a fourth league game without a win.
Taken in isolation last Saturday's 3-1 loss shouldn’t be seen as a disaster – Everton weren’t the first team to fall under the Foxes’ spell this season.
But coming as it did after three frustrating draws it only served to highlight Everton’s defensive failings that are threatening to curtail the club’s European ambitions.
Each dropped point merely cranks up the pressure on the next game as the Toffees slide further and further down the table.
Romelu Lukaku stands on the brink of another milestone though. The Belgian has scored in his past eight games in all competitions – no Everton player has scored in nine straight games since the legendary Dixie Dean in 1927.
Everton are supposed to be in the midst of a so-called ‘easy’ run of fixtures, but with just one win from their last six league games, Boxing Day’s trip to St James’ Park is far from a forgone conclusion.
Steve McLaren’s side are fourth from bottom in the table, just two points outside of the relegation zone, yet they go into this game on their best run of form since February.
Ok so it is just a three-game unbeaten run, but it means the Magpies will go into the game much more confidence than they were just a few weeks ago.
McClaren – who appeared to be facing the sack at the start of the month – has galvanised his squad who are belatedly showing signs of spirit and fight, none more so than in back-to-back wins against Newcastle and Tottenham earlier this month.
James McCarthy will once again miss out for Everton as he continues his recovery from a hamstring injury.
He joins Bryan Oviedo, Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar on the sidelines, though all four players could still play a part over the festive period.
Forward Steven Naismith has fully recovered from an ankle injury and will be pushing for a recall.
After last week’s disappointment Roberto Martinez must now surely be tempted to change the starting XI. Arouna Kone is the obvious man to drop out, with Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas candidates to replace him in the forward line. Aaron Lennon, Muhamed Besic and Darron Gibson may also see some action as Martinez rotates his squad through this busy run of games.
If Everton want to be serious contenders for the European places then these are the sorts of games they have to win. Dropped points against Bournemouth, Norwich and Crystal Palace have seen the side sucked into mid-table.
There is still time to arrest the slide, with a win closing the gap on the top four to just three points. It’s hard though to imagine the team has eradicated the bad habits that have dogged their season in the week since the Leicester game. Meaning goalscoring shouldn’t be a problem against the Magpies, but keeping a clean sheet will be.
Predicted starting XI
Following his goal last week I expect Kevin Mirallas to earn his first start since September in place of the struggling Arouna Kone. Gerard Deulofeu may also be rested, though that is more likely to happen against Stoke on Monday.
Everton: Howard, Coleman, Funes Mori, Stones, Baines, Barry, Cleverley, Mirallas, Barkley, Deulofeu, Lukaku