Everton face a potentially decisive fixture in their bid for European qualification when they visit Aston Villa on Thursday.
This fixture, originally scheduled for mid-January but postponed due to Villa’s COVID-19 outbreak, comes just 12 days after Dean Smith’s men won the reverse fixture 2-1 at Goodison Park.
But since then, Everton won at West Ham on Sunday, on the same day that Villa suffered a 3-1 home defeat to Manchester United.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men will go level on points with the Hammers in fifth place with victory at Villa, who are 11th.
Ahead of Thursday’s game, we spoke to Phil Vogel, from SB Nation’s dedicated Villa blog, 7500 to Holte:
RBM: Firstly, given this game comes just 12 days after the reverse fixture, what did you make of the Goodison clash?
Phil: It was the best performance I have seen since Jack Grealish went out. I was surprised Villa were allowed and able to create so much.
The first goal is just Ollie Watkins forcing a mistake from Mason Holgate. Then Ross Barkley just didn’t bother to mark Calvert-Lewin on a corner, which is a player problem but also the latest example of Villa’s zonal marking issues.
Thankfully, from my perspective, Anwar El Ghazi hit a real quality finish for the winner. In fairness, the score could have been very different if not for quality saves from both Emiliano Martinez and Jordan Pickford.
RBM: There has been a clear disparity between Everton’s home and away performances this season. Has that also been the case with Villa?
Phil: I had no idea Everton’s form had such a clear difference until hearing the comparison. Villa have the same issue of being better on the road this year but by a much less significant margin (21 points home vs 27 points away).
Home and away forms are so odd this year because of the pandemic. I think most clubs will throw the stat out after this year without jumping to too many conclusions (provided the 2021-22 campaign starts in a somewhat normal world).
RBM: Despite your reservations about Ross Barkley in our previous Q&A, I thought he was superb at Goodison, and kept his place in the starting XI against Man Utd on Sunday. Did he build on that performance with another impressive showing?
Phil: He sure was - that is the danger of making such a public statement! That was by far his best performance this calendar year and it was building on his next-best performance the week before.
It was fantastic to see him carrying the ball and looking to create attacks. Defending on the corner for Everton’s goal… not so great. He wasn’t as good against United, with too many giveaways. But then again the entire team wasn’t as good, especially after their penalty.
He is such a confidence player that I don’t know which version of him will show up.
RBM: Ollie Watkins also stood out at Goodison, but will miss this game through suspension. His red card on Sunday: harsh or fair?
Phil: First yellow - totally fair. A striker’s challenge trying to slide in late.
The second yellow was garbage. He went down easy, I’m not disagreeing with that. Every striker in the modern game goes down far too easily (you only have to look back at the United penalty - which was a clear and foolish foul by Luiz, without a doubt, but certainly not enough to actually cause Paul Pogba to go down). But the exact move gets called ‘clever’ when others do it and a penalty is given.
It’s frustrating, especially with the United handball that was not given earlier. But it is United, so not a shocker.
RBM: How big a miss do you fear Watkins could be for Villa here?
Phil: His energy will be missed. But to be honest, I’m excited to see what Keinan Davis will do with his first league start of the year.
Don’t get me wrong, Watkins is the better player and deserves his place in the squad. But Davis is a player I want to see more of. He can hold up the ball very well and looks to get his teammates involved. He finally scored a few weeks ago and I’m hoping to see big things from him.
RBM: Jack Grealish could make his return from injury on Thursday after three months out. With Villa not having much to fight for other than a top-half finish, would you resist the temptation to throw him straight back in from the start?
Phil: I want to see Grealish play. I always want to see Grealish play. He is a joy to watch (because he is on my team; I totally get why some opposition fans hate watching him).
But I really hope the medical folks have a veto power. It cannot be left up to Grealish because he wants to play after being out so long and with an eye towards the England team.
Personally, I would wrap him in bubble wrap until next year. But that is not a likely scenario and would actually be bad for Grealish. I’m just terrified, because there has been little to no actual information about what the injury is/was.
RBM: How do you expect Villa to set up on Thursday?
Phil: I think it will be Martinez; Cash, Konsa, Mings, Targett; Luiz, McGinn; Traore, Barkley, Grealish; Davis.
Barkley will play as the number ten, and Grealish will start on the left but will have the freedom to roam.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Phil: Matt Targett, provided Grealish plays. Targett loves to overlap with Grealish and almost all of Villa’s attack will come from the left, especially early in the match. Once Everton’s defence shifts over (provided Grealish and Targett are effective), that will allow some quick switches of play and room for Bertrand Traoré to run.
The other thing to watch is that Davis is a very different player up front from Watkins. Much more of a physical presence and a ‘pass first’ striker. It will be interesting to watch him for a full match, rather than the usual ten minutes at the end.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Thursday’s game?
Phil: 2-1 to Everton. It worked last time for me and I’m sticking with it.
Our thanks to Phil for his time.