Everton are back! The final international break of the season was as long as tedious as ever, but the Toffees return to action with arguably their toughest assignment of the campaign.
Pep Guardiola’s side have set the bar this year, with his thrilling brand of total football, honed in Catalonia, effortlessly recreated in east Manchester.
Just two wins separate them from the title, their third since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008, with the chance next week to beat rivals Man Utd to become champions an enticing prospect
That perhaps goes someway to explain why BT Sport were so excited to show the champions-elect live that they forgot who they were playing.
The BT ad for the City game on Saturday is missing something... pic.twitter.com/SaKtdzgHon— keith (@keith1878) March 25, 2018
Their advert for this weekend’s game contained several videos of celebrating City players but none of Everton, with the only mention of the Toffees at the end of the promo.
Ok, there hasn’t been much to shout about this season, but to be ignored entirely is a touch humiliating, and reflects our current standing amongst the media.
But it is moments just like this where Everton often rise to the occasion. They love to spoil a party and ruining City’s title charge - even only temporarily - is an opportunity they would relish.
The rivalry between the two sides has increased in recent years in wake of Sheikh Mansour’s takeover.
Prior to the takeover in 2008, Everton were regularly knocking on the door of the top four and considered ‘best of the rest’.
City meanwhile were a mid-table side that did little to bother those at the top of the table.
If any side was going to (re)join the Premier League’s elite it was Everton. But, fuelled by the Abu Dhabi millions, City left the Toffees trailing in their wake.
They have won seven trophies in 10 years since Mansour came on board and look set to add the Premier League title - and possibly the Champions League - this season.
It’s left Everton feeling more than a bit bitter and that is often reflected in some impressive performances against City since.
None more so than last season, when Everton dealt City a 4-0 thrashing that all but ended their title challenge last season.
Everton were superb that day and it was the undeniable peak under Ronald Koeman. The sad thing is we all thought it was the start of something special under the Dutchman, with the following 12 months instead bringing nothing but regression.
I still chuckle to myself though that during the worst Everton season this century and City’s best, probably of all time, they still couldn’t beat us at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season.
Had Everton shown a bit more ambition against the ten men of City they may even have claimed the win. But still, the draw means Everton are the only side Pep Guardiola has faced three times or more and yet to beat in his career.
They are also other reasons to be optimistic, not least the timing of the fixture.
Yes, City haven’t played for three weeks but they face Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday before the Manchester derby next week. They have an frightfully deep squad but even Pep may consider changes ahead of what he may perceive as a greater challenge.
Everton meanwhile should relish their role as troublesome underdog. We all desperately want to be involved in title races in the future. But for now, after the season we have had, the chance to cause a little mischief amongst those at the top will do for now.
Buy the best players, hire the best manager and train them at the best facilities. It’s a simple, if expensive, plan but one that is reaping dividends for Sheikh Mansour.
After a season to get himself comfortable in the Premier League, Guardiola has built a side that is scaling new heights in excellence.
The title is an inevitability, but a Champions League title is also very much a possibility.
The European Cup would be the completion of the dream ‘project’ for Mansour, who took over a drifting mid-table side and in less than a decade turned them into one of the most feared teams in world football.
The team needs no introduction, but what has impressed me this season is Guardiola’s ability to tease even more out of some of his established players.
The tremendously gifted but often inconsistent Raheem Sterling is a case in point. The former Liverpool forward is one of those who has benefitted most from Guardiola’s tutelage.
Kevin De Bruyne is also rapidly becoming a Premier League great and contender for player of the Year.
It seems a matter of when and not if City will win the title, and the fans will want them to secure it against Man United next week.
That would require a win at Goodison on Saturday though...
Everton’s biggest injury concern is Idrisaa Gueye, who faces a late fitness test on a thigh problem.
Ashley Williams definitely misses out through suspension, but Ramiro Funes Mori is included in the squad for the first time in over a year.
Man City meanwhile will be without former Everton defender John Stones due to concussion suffered on international duty.
Sergio Aguero is fit after a knee injury but may be rested ahead of Wednesday’s game against Liverpool.
Predicted starting XI
Pickford, Baines, Keane, Jagielka, Coleman, Schneiderlin, Rooney, Davies, Calvert-Lewin, Walcott, Tosun.
After securing their Premier League safety a fortnight ago, Everton can go into their next two matches free of pressure.
They have nothing to lose and so may be able to play with a freedom not seen on too many occasions this season.
If City play to their maximum then they will steamroller us like they have pretty much all before them this season.
But given our recent revival and City’s looming fixtures next week, don’t rule out a surprise Everton result...