After an impressive run of form featuring three straight clean sheets in succession, Everton have found themselves struggling once again. Against Liverpool, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, the Toffees were not always incredibly impressive, but sound defensive play along with timely goals secured nine points. In the two games since however, injuries and fatigue have caught up with the team and has hobbled their chances of reaching Europe next season.
How the remainder of the Premier League season will play out few will be able to guess. For Everton though, attention shifts this coming weekend to the FA Cup. In this quarterfinal matchup, the Blues will face all-conquering Manchester City for the second time in the span of just over a month. While the last game was a difficult one for the Toffees, this next one has a chance to be little better with Carlo Ancelotti finally handed the luxury of some additional time with his squad on the training pitches of Finch Farm.
A Massive Match on Merseyside
Opponent notwithstanding, this match was always going to be massive. The chance to lift the FA Cup is a dream for so many young footballers, and to bring a club as thirsty for glory as the Toffees are to that point would be an exhilarating feeling for anyone. Yet after two recent losses, this game has taken on greater meaning still.
After so many losses and draws to lower-half clubs, beating one of the top club sides in the world game would likely fix any flagging morale issues within Ancelotti’s squad after what has been a difficult season. The veteran Italian manager has shown that given the opportunity to drill his side, he can come up with tactical plans to beat anyone. It might not be pretty, and it certainly won’t be easy, but it can be done.
Just this season Everton have shown that they are capable of performing with admirable poise and confidence, whether it be against Tottenham Hotspur (twice) or Chelsea earlier in the season, or against Manchester United in the relatively recent 3-3 draw. Manchester City is better than all of those clubs however, and they are playing with a remarkably balanced squad.
While we are used to marveling at Pep Guardiola’s offensive wizardry regarding his forwards and wingers, this year has been different. The midfield have been much more dynamic, with Ilkay Gundogan having a career year while Phil Foden has also marked his arrival on the big stage with aplomb. Key players Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero have missed time but Pep’s side haven’t missed a step at all.
Guardiola at this point is in what is widely known as “load management” territory, where he is actively rotating his squad in pursuit of an incredible quadruple - Premier League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Champions League. He has had the luxury of being able to not only have a mental picture of his best XI like managers do, but can probably count on his best XX to step up whenever called upon.
Picking up the Pieces for the rest of the season
The chance to beat City for a place in the semifinals of the FA Cup is massive. It would propel us emotionally and mentally, as well as literally, further towards our dreams and ambitions. And while it will not count towards the Premier League table, it would certainly give back some of the confidence we’ve recently lost as another international break beckons, and the games after that take on incredible significance.
Matches against Crystal Palace and Brighton must be victories, as dropping points will have even greater consequences with less than ten matches left. To sweep and enigmatic Spurs across three matches would be a massive accomplishment this season, even when other positives are taken into account. With Arsenal to close out April, Everton have a realistic chance to rebound with six to nine points in the next four games. The real question remains though, can Everton step up their game when it matter most?
To have the resolve to bounce back versus such great quality as City will pose is no easy task, yet doing so will instill in the team a real sense of capability. While we remain in top six contention, taking a positive performance from the cup game into the international break and then beyond will certainly help this somewhat fragile Blues side that has struggled to be consistent either positively or negatively this season.
Ancelotti has shown signs that Everton can be a winning team and get to Europe, but it will take strong performances against not just big opponents to do so.