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Will Everton fans soften their stance towards David Moyes ahead of Sunderland reunion?

Moyes makes just his second return to Goodison Park since leaving nearly four years ago, and he has brought a load of familiar faces with him.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

After a tortuous two week break all of their own making, Everton are finally back in action this weekend as they look to maintain their post-Christmas form with victory against Sunderland.

Their FA Cup third round defeat to Leicester, a result that looks worse with each passing week, has been the only blemish on what has otherwise been a promising start to 2017.

The squad looks leaner and more focused after a busy transfer window that saw more outgoings than incomings, while on the pitch Ronald Koeman’s message finally seems to be getting through.

The Toffees are unbeaten in eight league games, stretching back to the derby defeat just before Christmas, and have scored 13 goals in their last three Premier League matches at Goodison Park.

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

That cup loss to the Foxes remains a nagging frustration given it was so at odds with what else we’ve seen so far this year. But that early cup exit at least gave Koeman the chance to take the squad away on a warm-weather training camp to Dubai.

The break allowed new signings Ademola Lookman and Morgan Schneiderlin to further integrate themselves into the squad. While the likes of Kevin Mirallas and James McCarthy were afforded time to recover from niggling injuries that saw them miss the draw with Middlesbrough last time out.

Romelu Lukaku was a notable absentee from Everton’s mid-season jaunt, with the striker undergoing treatment on a thigh injury back in his native Belgium. The 23-year-old is expected to be fully fit for Saturday’s game at Goodison.

The result is (hopefully) a squad refreshed and revived ahead of the season run-in.

Challenging for the top six remains a target; though realistically the seven-point gap between themselves and Man Utd already looks a tough ask.

Keeping ahead of an in-form West Brom therefore must be the minimum aim, while hoping one of the domestic cups goes to a top four side and therefore opens up an extra European spot to seventh place.

The opposition

To say there will be an air of familiarity about Saturday’s opposition would be a dramatic understatement.

David Moyes will back in the Goodison dugout for just the second time since his infamous departure four years ago.

The Scot was roundly booed while Man United boss in April 2014, a reflection of his behaviour towards his old club in his first few weeks at Old Trafford.

The supporters felt some of Moyes’ comments, as well as a ‘derisory’ joint bid for Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, soured his Everton legacy.

Everton fans would have the last laugh, with Moyes sacked within 48 hours of a 2-0 defeat at Goodison Park.

His career has yet to really recover since, with an unsuccessful spell at Real Sociedad preceding his appointment at Sunderland last summer.

On paper I thought Moyes and Sunderland were a perfect fit. A well supported, historical club fallen on hard times in need of strong management to lift the club away from the bottom of the table. There were more than a few echoes of Everton circa 2002.

In reality things haven’t quite worked out so far, with the Black Cats rock bottom of the table with just five wins all season.

Their struggles can’t be solely pinned on Moyes however. The Wearsiders have battled relegation for the past few years, finishing 17th, 14th, 16th and 17th over the past four seasons.

They have hovered dangerously over the trapdoor for much of the season only to escape by the skin of their teeth with a late surge in the spring. Without dramatic improvement their luck is bound to run out sooner rather than later.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

With finances tight Moyes has turned to familiar faces to try and bolster his squad.

Victor Anichebe and Steven Pienaar joined the club in the summer while Bryan Oviedo and Darron Gibson were recruited in January. Jack Rodwell was already in the squad when Moyes arrived while Joleon Lescott has also signed a short-term deal until the end of the season.

If the year was 2009 that would be a pretty decent team.

You can’t blame Moyes for going for tried and trusted players; lack of finances meant he had little choice. But out of that bunch I’d say only Oviedo represents a decent signing, the others look just too injury prone to be regularly relied upon.

They are all likely to receive a warm reception, particularly Oviedo given his Old Trafford heroics in 2013.

Lescott may be jeered due to his messy departure from Everton to Man City in 2009, though the passing eight years has probably eroded any bitterness and rancour towards the now 34-year-old.

It will be interesting to see what reception Moyes gets. It’s unlikely to be quite as toxic as last time, but opinion still seems divided about whether his 11 year tenure as Blues boss deserves to be permanently tarnished by a few, ill-advised and naïve comments in his early weeks at Old Trafford.

Back to matters on the pitch and the undoubted dangerman in a red and white shirt is Jermain Defoe. The former England striker has scored 14 goals already this season belying his 34 years, and will be the one to watch on Saturday.

Everton v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Without him Sunderland would already be virtually down and any chance they have of getting a result on Saturday will almost certainly hinge on his performance.

Moyes aside and Evertonians have never had any real beef with Sunderland supporters. They are similar types of clubs from passionate working-class cities and that is reflected in their fanbase. Black Cats fans are realistic as to their club’s ambitions but are no less unwavering in their support.

The good relationship between the two clubs has been embodied by the support for young Bradley Lowery. The Sunderland-mad five-year-old’s bravery in the face of terminal illness has captured the hearts of football fans everywhere.

Young Bradley will once again be mascot on Saturday, with his fight against such a terrible disease a timely reminder as to how football - for all its rivalry - can and should be used as a force for good.

Team news

Kevin Mirallas and James McCarthy are fit to return to the squad after missing out against Middlesborough a fortnight ago. Romelu Lukaku is also fit after a niggling thigh problem.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Muhamed Besic are edging closer to fitness but will not be ready for Saturday. Leighton Baines is expected to start and make his 300th appearance for the club.

Sunderland could recall goalkeeper Jordan Pickford after a two-month absence with a knee injury.

Steven Pienaar is struggling with a calf injury while defender Papy Djilobodji is suspended.

Jan Kirchhoff, Paddy McNair, Victor Anichebe and Duncan Watmore and Lee Cattermole are all out injured.

Final word

This game has coupon-buster written all over it. Form and league position points to just one winner but the presence of so many Everton old boys adds a layer of intrigue to the encounter.

In Defoe they always have a goal threat and any result is likely to stem from him nicking a goal at one end while doggedly hanging on at the other.

Like the Bournemouth game earlier this month an early goal is vital if Everton are to avoid a potentially awkward afternoon.

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