Everton stand on the brink of the busiest period of the season still scratching around for form and inspiration.
Saturday’s trip to Watford marks the start of a run of five games in 21 days, including daunting fixtures against Arsenal and Liverpool, yet the Toffees dive head first into the festive season on a run of just one win in nine matches.
Last weekend’s draw with Manchester United provided some positives, not least the reaction of the players in the final 25 minutes.
But news of a serious injury to Yannick Bolasie that could keep the forward out for more than year has cast a shadow over preparations for the trip to Vicarage Road.
It presents another selection headache for Ronald Koeman, who still doesn’t seem to know his preferred starting XI.
Gerard Deulofeu would be the natural replacement for Bolasie, especially after the Spaniard made a positive impact against Man Utd last weekend.
Mason Holgate and Enner Valencia also impressed during Sunday’s 1-1 draw and are pushing for a starting place this weekend.
Valencia has become something of a joke figure since his late deadline day loan move (a panic buy if there ever was one). But, credit to the Ecuadorian, he has kept his head down despite his lack of action so far.
It was his cameo appearance last week that galvanised the team and laid the platform for a late rally.
The side looked much more threatening with two players to aim for upfront. And if getting the best out of Romelu Lukaku is critical to the team’s fortunes (as said by Ronald Koeman this week) then Valencia may well be an unlikely enabler.
Last season’s 13th place finish was a significant milestone for Watford. The Hornets had finished rock bottom in their previous two seasons in the Premier League, meaning 2014-15 represented their best campaign since the mid-80s.
Despite that fine season the Watford owners chose to dispense with Quique Snachez Flores and bring in former Inter manager Walter Mazzarri.
In came the usual array of exotic names that have become the standard under owners the Pozzo family since their takeover in 2012.
Isaac Success, Christian Kabasele, Brice Dja Djedje, Daryl Janmaat, Jerome Sinclair and Stefano Okaka were recruited with mixed results.
It took five games for the Hornets to register their first win of the season but found themselves seventh at the end of October thanks to a run of four wins from seven games.
Things have slipped somewhat since then, sparked by a 6-1 thrashing at Liverpool. The Hertfordshire club have lost three out of four, their sole win coming against struggling champions Leicester.
Despite their poor run they can still overtake Everton with a win on Saturday, reflecting the Toffees’ equally patchy form.
Everton will of course be without Yannick Boalsie after the forward damaged cruciate ligaments against Man Utd last weekend.
Seamus Coleman should be fit though after recovering from a shoulder injury that also forced him off the pitch at Goodison on Sunday.
Watford will be without the suspended Roberto Pererya following his red card at West Brom last week.
Miguel Britos and Valon Behrami are available after bans while Daryl Janmaat has recovered from a head injury.
Given Everton’s next two opponents this is a match Everton really cannot afford to lose.
Watford’s patchy form should offer encouragement, but on the flip side Everton haven’t turned out a decent performance since September.
I’m hopeful though that last Sunday’s late draw with Man Utd has sparked a return to form and they can finally get back to winning ways.
Oh and if you fancy a flutter, Tory Deeney has been stuck on 99 Watford goals for the past seven games stretching back to October 1. You know what happens next.
Predicted starting XI: Stekelenburg, Baines, Funes Mori, Willians, Coleman, Mirallas, Barry, Gueye, Deulofeu, Valencia, Lukaku.