Everton will move into the top four, even if only for a few hours, by winning at West Bromwich Albion on Thursday.
The Blues will finish Thursday evening in fourth if they beat the Baggies and Liverpool and Chelsea draw with each other when they face off at Anfield later that evening.
West Brom have changed manager since their 5-2 defeat at Goodison Park in September, replacing former Everton player Slaven Bilic with former Everton boss Sam Allardyce in December.
After promotion last term, they are currently 19th and nine points adrift of safety, but have at least gone unbeaten in their previous three games.
RBM: Firstly, as we enter the final third of the season, how do you rate West Brom’s survival chances?
Joe: Slim, certainly, but they do seem to have sparked into life in the last few weeks. Sam Allardyce getting more time to train with his players and the introduction of the new signings has finally tightened Albion up defensively and made them much more competitive.
I imagine few teams have stayed up with such a small points total at this stage, so they’d have to buck quite a big trend.
RBM: Everton fans largely did not take to Sam Allardyce during his time as manager in 2017-18. What do you sense has been the prevailing mood among West Brom fans since Allardyce’s December appointment?
Joe: Well, Slaven Bilic was largely admired, and that was a bit of a shock for many people when he was sacked, though the results were telling. Albion wanted to give themselves the best chance of surviving, so they turned to a man who tends to get clubs in trouble out of their predicament.
Allardyce came with Wolves links, but I think many are finally seeing what he brings to the table - the question is whether it’s too late.
RBM: How different a side are West Brom now to the one beaten 5-2 at Everton under Slaven Bilic in September, and in what ways?
Joe: Very, at this particular moment. The summer signings, bar Conor Gallagher and Matheus Pereira - if you count him as a summer arrival - have played next to no part recently after the January business.
Albion have conceded five to a number of teams, not just Everton, this season but they’ve let in only one in their last three games so they’re improving.
RBM: Allardyce signed Robert Snodgrass and loaned Mbaye Diagne, Okay Yokuslu and Ainsley Maitland-Niles in January. What impacts have the new signings made so far?
Joe: Yes, they’ve all played their part so far. Snodgrass brings the experience at this level that Albion as a whole have been lacking desperately this season. Yokuslu is like Claudio Yacob, a player who breaks attacks down in front of the defence and loves a tackle.
Maitland-Niles, with Gallagher, has given the midfield a different look and brings lots of energy and talented footwork. Diagne, we have seen, can score - but he needs to sharpen up on his finishing. He could have had five goals by now.
RBM: West Brom have the league’s worst defence, but have kept clean sheets in their last two games. What improvements have you seen lately in that department?
Joe: Yokuslu has been a huge factor. Teams don’t rip through Albion the way that they used to. They were so open previously but, interestingly, Allardyce opted for midfielders, rather than defenders, in the window.
You can now see why - the defenders themselves are generally competent, but they were so exposed before. Now, they have protection and the goals have stopped.
RBM: This game was meant to be played on March 20 but, given Everton’s involvement in the FA Cup that day, was rescheduled to this Thursday. Allardyce has expressed his frustration at this decision; do you have sympathy for him on this?
Joe: Yes, I do. Only because Albion have an enormous game at midday on Sunday, at home to Newcastle. It ought to have got Albion’s undivided attention.
The game against Everton needs to be played, sure, but could it not have been played before Everton’s FA Cup game? Or after the international break?
RBM: How do you expect West Brom to set up on Thursday?
Joe: I think they’ll stay unchanged. They have Snodgrass back and Semi Ajayi from suspension, but I think Allardyce will save them for Sunday.
It’ll be a 4-3-3 - Johnstone; Furlong, Bartley, O’Shea, Townsend; Yokuslu, Gallagher, Maitland-Niles; Pereira, Phillips, Diagne.
RBM: Which of West Brom’s players do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Joe: Pereira was poor on Saturday but remains Albion’s obvious threat and has added more goals to his game this season. Otherwise, Maitland-Niles from deep can hurt sides.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Thursday’s game?
Joe: I’m going to opt for a hopeful 1-1. Albion haven’t fared too badly against the Blues at The Hawthorns down the years and have often been good for a point at least.
If Albion can claim a point here and defy the schedule to win on Sunday, then I think that’d be an excellent week and would give them genuine survival hope.
Our thanks to Joe for his time.