Everton could step up their chase for European qualification when Crystal Palace visit Goodison Park in the Premier League on Saturday.
With 12 top-flight teams enjoying their winter break this weekend, Manchester City and Sheffield United are the only sides above the Blues also playing, so a win over the Eagles will see Everton move up to seventh.
Roy Hodgson’s side have spent all season clear of relegation trouble, but a run of four points from their last six games has seen them slide to 14th, six points above the drop zone.
The teams’ last two meetings, both at Selhurst Park, ended 0-0, while Everton have not lost to the Eagles since September 2014.
Prior to Saturday’s game, RBM spoke to Jack Pierce, Palace fan and writer for Five Year Plan:
RBM: Firstly, how much is Palace’s current six-game winless run a concern to you?
Jack: It’s an increasing concern. In fairness to Roy Hodgson, his squad has been ravaged during that period by injuries and given the resources, the points at Southampton and Norwich City were definitely points gained. We did also pick up a point at Manchester City, which was encouraging.
That said, the recent home defeats to Southampton and Sheffield United have been two very limited performances and with those below us continuing to pick up points, the gap has shrunk in recent weeks. I still think we’ll be OK this season, but it’s far from ideal to be looking below rather than above having started the season relatively well.
RBM: Everton were one of several clubs linked with Wilfried Zaha last summer. With only three goals this term, is he under-performing, and do you suspect he is keen to leave Palace?
Jack: Under-perform is probably too strong as he constantly shows for the ball and drives us up the pitch, but things do seem a little bit off this season.
In my opinion, he’s clearly frustrated. His haranguing of referees and opposition players has certainly increased this season and in some instances he has every right to be cross. Sheffield United did a job on him on Saturday but that approach should have resulted in a second yellow for their right-back before the break. Zaha’s so clearly our main threat that it’s no surprise to see teams focus so much resource on him.
In terms of him leaving, he’s changed agents given his previous one not completing a move away from Selhurst so I think the desire to test himself elsewhere still remains. Our price remains the price and [co-owner] Steve Parish and co. won’t suddenly drop the price this summer.
RBM: James McCarthy, who left Everton for Palace in the summer, seems to have become a first team regular in recent weeks. How has he fared at Selhurst Park?
Jack: It’s known that McCarthy was a player that Hodgson had been keen for several windows previous to last summer’s, so it was a surprise it took so long for the Irishman to cement his place in the team.
I like him and think he’ll only improve with time and increased match fitness but I think some of the jury is still out. One thing all fans are agreed on is that he’s added a nastiness to our team that I think most would agree was missing. If there’s a scrap to be had, you can bet he’ll be in the middle of it.
RBM: While he's currently sidelined by a hamstring injury, what have you made of Cenk Tosun in his three Palace appearances since his loan move from Everton?
Jack: His debut, from the bench, against Arsenal showed us that he’s clearly keen to make an impression at Palace. He looked fit and put himself about. He was superb at City and took his goal very well, but he disappointed against Southampton when he put himself forward for miss of the season – 12 yards out, only the keeper to beat and he ballooned beyond Row Z. The sort of miss that creates a stunned silence.
I still have hope that he’ll contribute to the team between now and the summer, but we’ll see.
RBM: With 22 goals in 25 games, Palace are the league’s lowest scorers. With that in mind, are you disappointed the club did not strengthen up front more than just Tosun’s loan signing in January?
Jack: I didn’t expect to see any strikers come in once the Tosun deal was confirmed but was somewhat surprised to see Connor Wickham let out on loan – not that he’s been banging them in.
Our whole approach to recruitment is frustrating for our fan base. It seems Hodgson is at odds with Dougie Freedman, who leads on recruitment, as they differ in player style preferences. It’s understood that Hodgson was provided options during January but didn’t want many.
The one deal the club did expect to go through on deadline day was that of Nathan Ferguson, West Brom’s young right-back, but that fell through after the discovery of a dodgy knee.
RBM: What are your thoughts on the addition of a February winter break? Given Palace’s poor form, do you suspect it could do them more good than harm?
Jack: I like the notion of the break but find the approach adopted by Premier League a little peculiar. If you’re going to embrace player rest then just leave a match week blank. It seems this arrangement considers TV contracts as much as it does player welfare.
As for Palace, we had hoped the week-plus break after the Southampton defeat would do something for the team but given the lacklustre performance against Sheff Utd, I don’t have much hope that the ‘winter break’ will do much.
RBM: How do you expect Palace to set up on Saturday?
Jack: Defensively; I’m afraid we won’t come to entertain. Holding players sat in front of the well-drilled back four is how we approach every week and Roy is unlikely to change heading to a team bang in league form.
Our best football comes when on the break and with the returning Andros Townsend back to supplement the ranks, don’t be surprised if he starts.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Jack: It’s always Wilf because of what he has in his locker but don’t ignore Jordan Ayew. Much-maligned last season when on loan, he’s been our best outfield player this season and has proved many Palace fans wrong during this campaign.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Jack: A fairly comfortable Everton win but the longer we keep it quiet, the more chance of Palace taking something back down south.
Our thanks to Jack for his time.