After more than three months without a competitive game due to the coronavirus-enforced suspension of football in the UK, Everton return to action on Sunday when Liverpool visit Goodison Park for the latest instalment of the Merseyside derby.
With nine remaining games that have been squeezed into a five-week period, let’s take a look at what lies ahead for the Blues between now and late July:
Sunday, June 21 - Everton v Liverpool (7pm BST)
A nice, straightforward fixture to ease their way back in, Everton’s first of their final nine games sees them welcome their near neighbours and champions-in-waiting Liverpool to Goodison Park.
Everton have not beaten the Reds, 25 points clear at the top, for a decade, with the previous two Goodison derbies ending goalless. And, of course, should Arsenal beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, Liverpool could seal the title with victory over the Blues on Sunday. Which would just be wonderful, wouldn’t it?
Wednesday, June 24 - Norwich v Everton (6pm BST)
Next up for Everton is a trip to bottom club Norwich City, who will be seeking a league double over the Blues after winning 2-0 at Goodison on an embarrassing afternoon for Marco Silva and his side in November.
In fact, that remains the Canaries’ only away win in the Premier League this season, and they may well fancy their chances at Carrow Road, a ground Everton haven’t won at since 2004.
Wednesday, July 1 - Everton v Leicester (6pm BST)
Everton have already faced the Foxes twice this term; first in their last-gasp 2-1 defeat at the King Power Stadium which all-but sealed Silva’s fate, then in the quarter-finals of the League Cup which, after a storming comeback from 2-0 down, ended in penalty heartbreak for Duncan Ferguson’s men.
Monday, July 6 - Tottenham v Everton (8pm BST)
Everton then travel to Tottenham Hotspur over the weekend of July 4-5 in the reverse fixture of the match probably best remembered for André Gomes and the horrible fractured dislocation he suffered to his right ankle. And that handball on Dele Alli that was not called for a penalty.
This will be the Blues’ second visit to Spurs’ new ground after their 2-2 draw there on the final day of last season.
Thursday, July 9 - Everton v Southampton (6pm BST)
The following midweek, Southampton will visit Goodison looking to steer themselves further away from relegation trouble.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side will also be after revenge for the 2-1 defeat Everton inflicted on them in November’s reverse fixture, though they haven’t left Goodison with three points since 1997.
Sunday, July 12 - Wolves v Everton (12pm BST)
Richarlison will then look to improve his impressive goal record against Champions League-chasing Wolves at Molineux the following weekend.
The Brazilian has netted two braces in Everton’s three games against Nuno’s side since their promotion in 2018 - in both the 3-2 win at Goodison in September and in the 2-2 draw in the corresponding fixture last season.
Thursday, July 16 - Everton v Aston Villa (6pm BST)
Next up for Everton will be another midweek Goodison clash, as struggling Aston Villa look to complete a league double over the Blues.
The Villains deservedly beat Everton 2-0 in August’s reverse fixture, but may require a similar performance and result to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
Monday, July 20 - Sheffield United v Everton (6pm BST)
Sheffield United will be the third and final newly-promoted side looking to claim maximum points from Everton in the Blues’ final away game of 2019-20.
The Blades, who have confounded the critics by easing to safety and chasing European football, fully merited their 2-0 win at Goodison in September on another chastening afternoon for Silva and his players.
Sunday, July 26 - Everton v Bournemouth (4pm BST)
Everton’s elongated 2019-20 season then ends on Sunday, July 26 with the visit of AFC Bournemouth to Goodison.
The Cherries, who return to action in the bottom three, comfortably saw off the Blues with a 3-1 home win in September, but Everton can take heart from the fact that Eddie Howe’s men have lost all four of their Goodison visits since promotion in 2015.
What should Everton be aiming for?
Though they only face two of the so-called ‘Big Six’ in their final nine matches, Everton’s fixture list is probably a harder run of games than it may seem at first glance.
They still have to face three sides in the hunt for European football in Leicester, Wolves and Sheffield United, and six teams who have already beaten the Blues this season.
It remains to be seen how much of an impact empty stadiums will have on performances, but since the Bundesliga returned in Germany on May 16, home sides are half as likely to win as before.
This could work in Everton’s favour at grounds like Molineux and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as much as it may work against them in the Merseyside derby, and when ‘lower’ sides such as Southampton, Villa and Bournemouth visit Goodison.
Then there’s the injury crisis that Carlo Ancelotti is having to contend with. Since Everton returned to training in the week commencing May 18, five players (Yerry Mina, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Fabian Delph, André Gomes, Theo Walcott) have sustained knocks that have either ruled them out completely of the restart or made them unlikely to feature, at least in Sunday’s derby.
With all of that in mind, then, a top-half finish looks the most realistic target for Everton in what has been a desperately disappointing season for the most part.
The Blues are 12th, two points behind Burnley in tenth, and six behind Wolves in sixth. So, while European qualification cannot be considered out of the question, it looks a stretch. Though, the fact that Everton play a number of teams around them in the congested mid-table of the Premier League may work to their benefit if they can take three points off at least some of them.
Given the amount of players sidelined, as well as the fact that empty stadiums may remove a certain degree of pressure, it also seems an opportune moment to give extended runs to the likes of Tom Davies, Anthony Gordon and Moise Kean, the latter of whom desperately needs to start a string of games to show just how good he can be.
Overall, though, considering the current number of absentees and the ungodly mess that Ancelotti inherited in December from Marco Silva, albeit a squad revitalised by Duncan Ferguson, a top-ten finish and a few youngsters nurtured would have to be deemed a job well done by the Italian.
In truth, the hard work was always going to begin in earnest once this particularly long slog of a season was done and dusted. Any more tangible success salvaged from it is really a bonus.