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Everton are back - but the hard work starts here

The international break is over and Everton now face their busiest period of the season. The hard work starts here

Cardiff City v Fulham FC - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

After the third international break of the season (but thankfully the last until March) Everton are back at Goodison as they look to maintain the feel-good factor that has surrounded the club in recent weeks.

Rarely has a goalless draw been greeted with such optimism than the point gained at Stamford Bridge last time out.

The Toffees were rewarded for a bold approach that saw them match Chelsea for much of the game. It’s true that we rode our luck at times, but this wasn’t a backs-to-the-wall type display. In fact, had Everton been more clinical (a familiar problem this season) they may well have stolen all three points.

As it is everyone was more than happy to walk away from the capital with a hard-earned point.

But this is where things get serious.

Everton face a run of nine games in six weeks (10 if you include the FA Cup third round) including trips to Anfield and the Etihad as well as home match with Tottenham just before Christmas.

Fortunately, the players seem to be finding a rhythm just as we enter this critical stage of the season. The team finally looks balanced, with players played in their favoured positions and growing in confidence and belief. Marco Silva even has a selection dilemma at the back with Kurt Zouma available again after being ineligible against Chelsea last time out. Yerry Mina came in and looked impressive on his first start alongside Michael Keane.

England v United States - International Friendly

My preference would be to keep the backline unchanged. It would be harsh on Zouma, who has done nothing wrong, but it would keep the players on their toes and send out the message that the shirt is theirs to keep as long as they keep performing.

Thankfully Gylfi Sigurdsson is fit despite that horrible tackle by Jorginho last time out. Andre Gomes is also available after withdrawing from the Portugal squad as he looks to maintain his fine start to life in an Everton shirt.

Speaking of performing, does Silva consider a reshuffle upfront? Ademola Lookman was again impressive coming off the bench at Stamford Bridge and must be pushing hard for a start, either in place of Bernard on the left of Theo Walcott on the right.

All options for Silva to ponder, though it’s just nice for the Portuguese to have some squad depth to play with.

The old cynic in me also fears an injury and/or red card to a key player on Saturday given what lies in wait next weekend. But let’s worry about that next week....

The opposition

Cardiff may have had their struggles in the Premier League this season, but the fact they are here at all is testament to the marvellous job done by Neil Warnock.

When the former Crystal Palace and Sheffield Utd boss took over the Bluebirds a little over two years ago they were second bottom of the Championship after a run of two wins from 11 games.

Cardiff would go on and finish the season 12th - 11 points clear of the relegation zone. The following season was even better, with the Welsh club edging ahead of Fulham to claim the second automatic promotion place to enter the Premier League for just the second time.

What’s so impressive about that achievement is that is has been done on a limited budget, based instead around a well organised defence and an indomitable spirit.

Cardiff City v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

They will need that spirit and more if they are to avoid an immediate return to the Championship. Warnock openly admits the task in front of him would be seen as insurmountable by many, but the 69-year-old has never shied away from a challenge and is unlikely to do so now.

They actually head to Goodison in high spirits after their victory over Brighton last time out made it two wins out of four. A win on Saturday could lift them out of the relegation zone for the first time since September. That requires a performance at odds with what we have seen from the Bluebirds on the road so far this season though. They’ve lost four and drawn one of their five Premier League away games so far, scoring a league low two goals on the rod.

A reason for optimism though is Warnock’s impressive recent record at Goodison Park. The veteran boss has won on his last two visits there, with QPR in 2011 and Crystal Palace in 2014.

Team news

Marco Silva has confirmed Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomes are fit and available after they were forced to withdraw from their respective international squads through injury.

Silva has yet to make a decision about his centre-back pairing, with Michael Keane, Yerry mina, Kurt Zouma and Phil Jagielka all available.

Final word

It’s natural for some fans’ thoughts to drift towards Anfield next week but it’s vital the players remain focused on the task in hand and don’t take anything for granted.

With tough away games punctuated by gentler home games it’s important the team continue to pick up points at Goodison to ease the pressure on the road.

This game is definitely down as a ‘should win’. But like we found against Huddersfield earlier this year, games against stubborn obturate opponents are often harder than they first seem, particularly if you fall behind.

Patience will clearly be required, particularly if Cardiff take an aggressive approach, but this is a game Everton should be winning.