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Everton’s season is on the line as they head to Millwall

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The Toffees’ stuttering league form has placed even greater importance on the FA Cup

Millwall v Hull City - FA Cup Third Round Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

After raising hopes of kick-starting their campaign against Bournemouth, Everton returned to type against Southampton last week with the kind of insipid performance we are witnessing with alarming regularity.

The Toffees were wretched at St Mary’s, with the final 2-1 scoreline perhaps not a true reflection of what happened on the pitch.

Whether it’s tiredness, loss of form, loss of confidence or a combination of all three, Everton’s key players are just not performing at the minute. And given there are few credible alternatives for Marco Silva to turn to, it looks like he has to persevere with pretty much the same team until the end of the season.

Southampton FC v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

The transfer market is unlikely to provide any answers either, with Silva conceding the club cannot afford to add to an already bloated squad without a significant departure. It all points to a fairly bleak outlook with the Toffees rooted in mid-table and facing a battle with the likes of Leicester, West Ham and Watford for the ‘prize’ of seventh place (and even that looks a distant prospect right now).

All that places greater emphasis on the FA Cup to provide a beacon of light in Everton’s increasingly gloomy season.

There has been some criticism lately on social media of the phrase ‘a good cup run’, with fans arguing that the only good cup run you can have it when you win it. That is true, but those hoping for ‘a good cup run’ shouldn’t be labelled defeatist. We all want to win it, but isn’t hope and excitement what sustains football fans everywhere? The longer we are in the competition the longer we can dream of winning it, and if we do fall short at least we had some fun along the way.

Defeat on Saturday will leave us with precious little to play for during the second half of the season and suck any excitement out of the remaining games, a worryingly regular occurrence for Evertonians in modern times.

The opposition

Millwall are preparing to take on Everton for just the 14th time in their history and first since an FA Cup third round replay in 2006. Since then the Lions have flittered between the Championship and League One, a regular occurrence throughout their 134-year history. They enjoyed two seasons in the top flight 1988 and 1990, with Everton winning two, drawing one and losing one of the four meetings in the old Division One.

They do have a reputation for having, er, boisterous, support, though that largely stems back to the 1970s and 1980s when hooliganism was rife across the country, not just in south London. They will, however, create a fierce, intimidating atmosphere from the off on Saturday evening and seek to make life as difficult as possible.

They are currently in the Championship having secured promotion via the play-offs in 2017 under Neil Harris - Millwall legend and the club’s all-time leading goalscorer.

They briefly flirted with the play-offs last season thanks to a fine 17-game unbeaten run from January to April before securing a still credible eighth-place finish. Things have been tougher this time around with the club 19th and just six points above the bottom three. However, four successive wins over Christmas suggests a corner might have been turned.

Despite never winning the competition Millwall do have history in the FA Cup, reaching four semi-finals, most recently in 2013, and going all the way to the final in 2004 before losing to Manchester United.

FA Cup Semi Final: Sunderland v Millwall
Tim Cahill celebrates scoring the winner for Millwall against Sunderland in the 2004 FA Cup semi-final
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

That game at Cardiff proved to be Tim Cahill’s last in a Millwall shirt before moving to Everton that summer. The Aussie is much-loved by both sets of supporters and is sure to get a rousing reception from the whole crowd when he returns to The Den as a pundit on Saturday.

Team news

The only good thing about Everton’s season so far has been the relative lack of injuries, with Phil Jagielka the only absentee.

That at least gives Marco Silva options to freshen things up should he choose, though given the importance of the game it is hoped he names a strong side - to not do so would be foolish.

Projected line-up

Everton: Pickford, Digne, Mina, Keane, Coleman, Gomes, Gueye, Sigurdsson, Lookman, Walcott, Richarlison.

Final word

Though we have been used to losing lately, defeat on Saturday would be a hammer blow and effectively end the season.

The early evening kick-off, sell out crowd and presence of live TV cameras is the perfect backdrop for a cup shock so the players will have to be mentally strong and seek to quieten down the supporters at the first opportunity.

They are more than good enough to get through, but this team has picked up the worrying habit of playing way below their potential lately, making me - and most Evertonians - feel nervous.