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Everton continue their top six quest at Middlesbrough

After last week’s madness against Bournemouth, expect things to be a lot calmer in the north-east

Everton v Middlesbrough - Premier League Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images

Almost exactly 12 months ago Everton slumped to a depressing 1-0 defeat against West Brom at Goodison Park despite having 34 shots on goal.

That dour, damp February afternoon epitomised the dying embers of the Roberto Martinez era.

Just six of those 34 shots were on target as Everton repeatedly smashed their head against a West Brom wall with no plan B.

The 38,103 hardy souls who made the effort to attend went through a sense of duty rather than genuine excitement.

Going to watch Everton at Goodison had long become a chore and that was reflected in a tetchy atmosphere, with each missed chance greeted as a grim and embittered inevitability.

Fast forward 12 months and the atmosphere around the club couldn’t be starker.

Everything about the club has been transformed, with a new owner, new manager, a refreshed playing squad and plans for a new stadium.

The supporters have been revitalised too, with Evertonians actually looking forward to going to the match again.

Last weekend’s wonderfully chaotic win against Bournemouth was one of those glorious afternoons where everything comes together perfectly.

In the space of about three joyous minutes Romelu Lukaku smashed home his hat-trick to seal Everton’s victory while 125 miles east Oumar Niasse was slotting home Hull’s second against Liverpool.

Everton fans are looking forward to going to the match again and within seconds of the final whistle were counting down the days to their next match away at Middlesbrough

Everton v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Everything just seems to have clicked in place, particularly in midfield where the arrivals of Morgan Schneiderlin and Ademola Lookman as well as the emergence of Tom Davies has added some much needed competition.

Ross Barkley looks to have emerged from his mid-season slump revitalised and free of self-doubt while Lukaku looks more-and-more like the complete Premier League striker.

Lukaku’s four goals last weekend sent him soaring to the top of the Premier League scoring charts and is now just one goal away from equalling Duncan Ferguson’s Premier League record of 60.

Defensively there remains some doubts – Ramiro Funes Mori remains a liability, Ashley Williams has yet to reach top form and Mason Holgate still has a lot to learn. But it is enough to see us through to the end of the season.

The fact Ronald Koeman isn’t even asked anymore about his first choice goalkeeper shows how Joel Robles has performed in recent weeks.

Everton have yet to lose in the league since that crushing defeat to Liverpool in December, raising hopes of a realistic top six challenge.

If the Toffees are to overhaul the likes of Man Utd and (dare I say it) Liverpool between now and May then games like Saturday they simply have to win.

The opposition

Middlesbrough’s return to the Premier League after an eight-year absence has gone as many people expected so far.

Aitor Karanka’s side built their promotion campaign on a solid defence and their survival bid is using similar foundations.

The Teesiders conceded just 31 goals last season, comfortably the best in the division.

They have conceded just 27 times so far this campaign, the same as Everton and far fewer than anyone else in the bottom half of the table.

Middlesbrough v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

The reason Boro aren’t in the top half of the table though is their struggles at the other end, scoring a league low 19 goals.

Mike mentioned in his preview that Middlesbrough’s tactics will not be the most expansive, meaning patience will be needed at the Riverside.

Alvaro Negredo will lead the line for Boro. The Spanish striker arrived with great fanfare in the summer but has scored just six league goals so far, though that is enough to top the club’s scoring chart.

Their current position of 15th is also deceptively precarious given they are one of three teams just one point above the drop zone. Indeed Boro could even end the weekend bottom if results go against them.

Team news

Ronald Koeman has no fresh injury concerns so any selection decisions will be tactical.

Idrissa Gueye has yet to feature since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations while Tom Davies impressed from the bench against Bournemouth.

Muhamed Besic and Dominic Calvert-Lewin remain long-term absentees.

Middlesbrough could have Gaston Ramirez available after a knee injury but George Friend is doubtful with a calf problem and Antonio Barragan is out with a hamstring strain.

Final word

Given Middlesbrough’s miserly defence we are unlikely to see a repeat of the madness we witnessed last weekend. But a scrappy 1-0 victory will be just as important even if it’s not as spectacular.

Predicted starting XI: Robles, Coleman, Funes Mori, Williams, Holgate, Baines, Schneiderlin, Gueye Lookman, Barkley, Lukaku.