Everton fans make their long-awaited return to Goodison Park on Saturday for the visit of title-chasing Chelsea after nine long months away.
There may only be 2,000 supporters permitted under the UK government’s coronavirus restrictions, but it is a huge step in the right direction and return to some form of normality after a trying year for all concerned.
The club look to have worked extremely hard to make Goodison, with its crumbling facilities and cramped concourses, as Covid safe as possible.
Let’s hope this is just the starting point and more fans can slowly return in the coming weeks and month.
On the pitch, Saturday’s game kicks off hectic run of seven games in just 22 days.
The Toffees’ failure to qualify for Europe means they have been without a midweek game since October, but that will all change in the coming weeks.
That breathless run is made all the harder by the calibre of opponent, with Leicester, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City all to come between now and the end of the year.
It is a touch concerning, therefore, that the Toffees go into the game on a run of just one win in seven matches and without a clean sheet since the opening week of the campaign.
There were glimpses of their early-season form against Burnley last time out particularly after the three-at-the-back experiment was rightly ditched, but they still lack the confidence and fluidity we saw in September and October.
Let’s hope Carlo Ancelotti has used these past few days to make the necessary improvements as there will be precious little spare time to do so in the next six weeks.
This fixture does at least have some good recent memories for Everton fans. The equivalent meeting last year saw the Toffees win 3-1 in front of a riotous Goodison, with Duncan Ferguson in the dugout for the first time.
After a stuttering start, Chelsea look to be kicking into top gear and mounting a credible title challenge.
The Blues were tipped to be contenders from the outset after a summer of lavish spending saw the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell arrive in west London.
An early defeat to Liverpool and 3-3 draws with West Brom and Southampton suggested weaknesses still existed. But those doubts seem to have been expunged thanks to a run of eight wins from 10 games in all competitions, lifting them into the top three of the Premier League and comfortably through to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
The signing of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to replace the error-prone Kepa has been key. The 28-year-old has conceded just four goals in 13 appearances, with nine clean sheets.
Chelsea 4-0 Everton March 8, 2020
Everton’s final away game before the coronavirus lockdown was an unhappy one, with goals from Mason Mount, Pedro, Willian and Olivier Giroud securing a thumping win for Chelsea on Carlo Ancelotti’s return to Stamford Bridge.
Burnley (A) Drew 1-1
Leeds (H) Lost 1-0
Fulham (A) Won 3-2
Man Utd (H) Lost 3-1
Newcastle (A) Lost 2-1
FK Krasnodar (A – CL) Drew 1-1
Leeds (H) Won 3-1
Sevilla (A – CL) Won 4-0
Tottenham (H) Drew 0-0
Rennes (A – CL) Won 2-1
Everton will be without James Rodriguez, who missed training all week after picking up a groin injury against Burnley.
Seamus Coleman isn’t ready for for return despite resuming training after a hamstring injury, with the Republic of Ireland international in line to feature against Leicester on Wednesday.
Fabian Delph is out with a hamstring problem of his own, Lucas Digne is sidelined for the rest of the year, while Jean-Phillipe Gbamin has yet to return to Finch Farm after his rehabilitation in France.
What they said
Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti: “Chelsea is in a really good moment, after a difficult start they started to play like they want and are capable.
“It is necessary for us to give and fantastic and top, top performance [to win the game].
“The question is, are we able to do this?
“The answer, in my personal opinion is, yes, we are able to compete.
“We are where we want to be in the table – that means to fight for a position in Europe.”
Chelsea boss Frank Lampard: “They started very well. They have quality players, they have a fantastic manager - one of the best in the world - and the Premier League is unforgiving.
“They have had a few injuries but we all have our own moments and patches where results are challenging. But it doesn’t change my thoughts about how to approach playing Everton.
“They are a very, very good side. They have great individuals within a collective that can win games.
“I’m very focused on their strengths and the dangers we face going there. We found that out last year. I know it was a different time, different manager although he is still on the staff. But it was a very tough match for us and that should still be on our minds.”
Make no mistake; this is a tough encounter for Everton against a side bang in form. And if the Toffees play like they have done over the past month they will almost certainly lose. They need to get their early season groove back and quickly. Otherwise it could be a very uncomfortable Christmas.