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Chelsea put their title credentials on the line against Everton

Antonio Conte’s side are still favourites for the title, but risk letting in Tottenham with a slip-up at Goodison Park

Chelsea v Everton - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

All eyes will be on Goodison Park on Sunday as title-hunting Chelsea face arguably their toughest test of the run-in against the mighty Toffees.

Not that there was anything mighty about them against West Ham last week - how bad was that?

They certainly gave the first hint that their minds are starting to wander towards the beach with a truly soporific goalless draw.

Unlikely to finish any lower than seventh but struggling to climb up to sixth, it seemed some players feel their work is now done for the season.

It was a truly dreadful 90 minutes of football, not helped by West Ham’s safety-first tactics.

You can’t really blame them mind, they were decimated by injury and were willing to do anything to stop Romelu Lukaku scoring against them yet again.

Everton though failed to get going and with Lukaku well shackled, barely created a chance of note.

The tedious 90 minutes at the London Stadium will be instantly forgotten by most who witnessed it, except Ronald Koeman, who is likely to use it as a further reminder of just how much work is needed in the transfer market this summer.

The Dutchman labelled it Everton’s worst performance of the season and will demand a response against the league leaders.

Being back at Goodison Park will be a huge boost. Everton have been imperious on their own turf this year, winning eight straight matches – a Premier League club record.

They have lost just once at Goodison all season scoring more goals than any of their last 26 seasons. Another win on Sunday would give Everton a Premier League club record of 43 points at home this season.

More reasons for optimism? Everton have won six of their last ten home games against Chelsea in all competitions, including victories in the Premier League and FA Cup last season.

Reasons to be nervous? The previous meeting in November.

Everton were well and truly ripped to shreds at Stamford Bridge and were lucky to get away with just a 5-0 mauling.

Chelsea v Everton - Premier League
Everton were hammered 5-0 when the sides last met in November
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Eden Hazard in particular was sensational, waltzing and gliding his way the Toffees defence seemingly at will.

The defeat came in the midst of Everton’s worst run of the season – 11 games without a victory – stretching from early September through to December.

The one positive to come out of the game is that Koeman will have learnt a lot about his squad and who he can – and cannot –rely upon.

It’s telling that Bryan Oviedo would never play for the club again after that game, while Tom Cleverley would only feature twice, before both departed in January.

Tom Davies meanwhile was Everton’s best player and he was a 66th minute substitute.

Thankfully Everton are in a much better place going into the return meeting. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more lessons to be learnt.

With thoughts starting to turn towards summer recruitment Koeman may well see this game as a decent yard stick by which to measure his improving side, and perhaps decide a few Goodison futures too.

The opposition

For the first time this season Chelsea appear to be under some concerted pressure in the title race.

Tottenham’s run of eight successive victories has seen Chelsea’s seemingly impenetrable lead whittled down to just four points.

For much of the campaign the title look certain to be returning to Stamford Bridge, with Antonio Conte seamlessly slipping into the Premier League.

It all turned on the Italian’s decision to switch to a back three after back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal in September left the Londoners in eighth place.

The Blues then went on to win 13 successive Premier League matches, with their thrashing of Everton in November lifting them to the top of the table – a position they have occupied ever since.

The lack of European football has certainly helped, meaning Conte has been able to use a consistent line-up with relatively little injury problems.

Only in recent weeks have issues started to flare up, with defeats to Crystal Palace and Man United suggesting their momentum might be slowing.

However, last weekend’s thrilling FA Cup semi-final win against Tottenham, followed up by a 4-2 win over Southampton, has got things back on track.

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Another key factor in Chelsea’s form has been N’Golo Kante. The newly crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year has once again been sensational, with his breathless energy and seemingly endless stamina making it seem like Chelsea have 12 players on the pitch instead of 11.

Everton, of course, have a very similar player in Idrissa Gueye, certainly when it comes to key stats such as tackles and interceptions. It will be fascinating to see how they fare against each other on Sunday.

Looking at Chelsea’s run and it’s clear the trip to Merseyside is their toughest remaining task.

Though nothing should be taken for granted at this time of year, relegation fodder Middlesbrough and Sunderland shouldn’t present much of an issue. Watford and West Brom meanwhile will have little but pride to play for.

A win at Goodison Park and it will be very difficult to see the title going anywhere else but west London.

Defeat, and things might just get interesting.

Team news

Ronald Koeman reported no fresh injury concerns ahead of Sunday’s game at Goodison Park.

That means James McCarthy and Aaron Lennon remain sidelined while Ramiro Funes Mori, Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolaise are long-term absentees.

Muhamed Besic isn’t yet fit enough to make a return from his long-term knee injury. Enner Valencia is available to return though after he was ineligible against parent club West Ham last weekend.

Everton v Hull City - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Final word

The visit of Chelsea seems to bring the best out of Everton in recent seasons and Sunday should be no different, especially after what happened the last time they met in November.

The players also owe a performance after last week’s dour display and West Ham to prove their minds haven’t already drifted off-task.

I have made it through this whole preview without mentioning Romelu Lukaku, who won the FA Cup game on his own last season and may well be looking to impress his past (and potential future) employers this time around.

Predicted starting XI: Stekelenburg, Baines, Williams, Jagielka, Holgate, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Barkley, Davies, Mirallas, Lukaku.