Sam Allardyce’s serene start to life as Everton manager faces it’s toughest test on Saturday as champions Chelsea arrive at Goodison Park.
Four wins from five games (five from six if you include the Europa League victory in Limassol) is an impressive return and has done much to quell the murmurings of dissent following Allardyce’s appointment last month.
There’s no doubt he has benefited from a relatively kind fixture list, a direct consequence of the team’s tough start to the campaign that pushed Ronald Koeman towards the exit door.
The trip to Anfield aside, all of Allardyce’s games have been against teams in the bottom half of the table.
That’s not to downplay his early achievements completely. The team was a complete shambles a little over a month ago so to tighten up the defence, inject a bit of confidence and pick up as many points in five games as they have done all season, is mightily impressive.
Allardyce has also managed to get Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney playing well in the same team, something his predecessor Koeman failed to do.
However, the visit of Antonio Conte’s side is likely to be a much more accurate yardstick of the progress made under the new manager.
It will also perhaps help us work out what the club’s ambitions are for the remainder of the season.
Fans have already started to look towards the top half of the table, arguing that a repeat of last season’s seventh place finish is more than possible.
Allardyce, understandably, wants the side to pick a few more points in order to ease any relegation fears before looking too far ahead.
The former England boss is enjoying his honeymoon period at Goodison Park but is right to keep the players’ feet on the ground, aware perhaps of how quickly things can change.
The game also kicks off the “busy festive period” with four games in 10 days. Those 12 points on offer could significantly alter the table going into the new year, making it the most important part of the season so far.
When Chelsea thrashed Everton 5-0 in November last year, rarely have I seen a Toffees side so completely dismantled.
The team were terrible at Stamford Bridge, but it was also one of those nights where you have to hold your hands up and credit the opposition.
Antonio Conte’s side were simply superb, especially Eden Hazard, who gave the Everton backline a torrid time with a dazzling solo performance.
That was Chelsea’s fifth consecutive victory, with the Blues going on to win another eight straight games to help set the platform for their ultimately comfortable title victory.
Things haven’t be quite so straight forward this season. The extra games in Europe means they haven’t been able to build the head of steam achieved last autumn, while the Diego Costa transfer saga overshadowed the opening weeks of the campaign.
Chelsea go into the game third and 14 points behind leaders Man City. However, that is much to do with City’s record-breaking run under Pep Guardiola as it is Chelsea’s failings.
They also head north back of eight wins from their last nine games to consolidate their position in the top four. So, it’s not all bad.
This will be the third meeting of the sides already this season. Back in August, before everything went wrong, Chelsea inflicted Everton’s first defeat of the season with a comfortable 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.
Everton were back at the Bridge in October, this time in the Carabao Cup, but succumbed to a 2-1 defeat in David Unsworth’s first game in caretaker charge.
That means Everton have lost their last four meetings with Chelsea in all competitions with an aggregate score of 12-1.
But before you get to down, the Toffees have a fine recent record when playing the reigning champions at Goodison Park.
Everton haven’t lost at home to the reigning Premier League champions for six years and have lost just once to the current title holders in a decade.
Will that continue on Saturday?
Sam Allardyce has confirmed Yannick Bolasie is technically fit after a year out with a knee injury but is only likely to make the bench at best given his lack of match sharpness.
Ross Barkley and James McCarthy played in a training game this week but are not yet ready to return.
Seamus Coleman also isn’t ready to return from his broken leg while Leighton Baines is sidelined with a calf problem.
Chelsea will be without Alvaro Morata through suspension after he collected his fifth booking of the season for excessive celebrations against Bournemouth in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday.
Predicted starting XI
Pickford, Kenny, Williams, Holgate, Martina, Schneiderlin, Gueye, Rooney, Sigurdsson, Lennon, Calvert-Lewin.
This game would have been easy to predict a few weeks ago but Everton’s new-found resolve under Allardyce makes it a tough one to call.
As typically feisty Goodison atmosphere should also welcome the champions, as Evertonians look to begin the holiday period in style.
However, Everton have benefitted from a kind fixture list in recent weeks while Chelsea go into this game in fine form.
That said, I have a sneaky feeling Big Sam’s snidey Toffees could snatch a result and gives us all a happy Christmas.