Everton drag their inconsistent behinds down to London this weekend to take on a West Ham side sat in a position where we all hoped the Toffees would be at this stage of the season.
The Toffees’ miserable 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa last time out was a carbon copy of pretty much every home game since the turn of the year, a disastrous run of form which has cost the club a shot at the top four places.
There is still a chance of making Europe of course, the teams around Everton are just as inconsistent, but each passing defeat sees them slowly edge away from the top six and leaves them needing a string of victories to ensure a place in continental competition next season.
It is difficult to pinpoint one main reason for Everton’s failings in recent months. The lack of crowds and arduous schedule are definitely factors, though they apply to every team. A mish-mash of a squad, injuries to key players and absence of quality in key positions have also played a part. There also seems to be a worrying lack of desire or urgency – as if they are already coasting through to the end of the season.
A rare opening to the top four places emerged this season as Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal endured below-par campaigns, but Everton have failed to capitalise.
That’s exactly what West Ham are doing right now as they head into this weekend’s game just three points outside the Champions League places.
On the flip side, we have to remember that the team is likely to improve on last season’s points tally and that of four of the last five seasons, bar Ronald Koeman’s only full year in 2016-17.
That is at least a sign of progress and yet another reminder that we have to be patient and allow Carlo Ancelotti time to rebuild the squad.
After 26 years of under-achievement patience is understandably in short supply, but we have little choice to put our faith in the current regime as yet more chopping and changing will only make things worse.
There are definite shades of Everton 2005 with this West Ham team. Fresh off the back of a disappointing relegation-threatened campaign last time out, David Moyes has turned their fortunes around with a couple of astute signings, including an inspired January loanee, propelling the Hammers into top four contention.
Four successive wins at the turn of the year, including a 1-0 New Year’s Day win at Goodison, lifted the Hammers into the top four and they have been in around those positions ever since, losing just five times in 18 Premier League matches in 2021.
Like at Everton, Moyes has found a way to grind out results against the lower ranked teams. Eight of their ten league defeats have been against sides from the breakaway six, with the other two both coming against Newcastle.
With games against Brighton, West Brom and Southampton to come, you would not bet against them picking up enough points to seriously challenge Chelsea and maybe even Leicester for a top four place.
And with those two clubs preparing for cup finals, you wouldn’t bet against the Hammers from pulling it off either.
Everton 0-1 West Ham January 1, 2021
A dreary opening to 2021 and a sign of things to come, as Tomas Soucek’s 86th-minute goal sealed all three points for the Hammers.
Aston Villa (H) Lost 2-1
Arsenal (A) Won 1-0
Tottenham (H) Drew 2-2
Brighton (A) Drew 0-0
Crystal Palace (H) Drew 1-1
Burnley (A) Won 2-1
Chelsea (H) Lost 1-0
Newcastle (A) Lost 3-2
Leicester (H) Won 3-2
Wolves (A) Won 3-2
Everton have been boosted by the return to fitness of Abdoulaye Doucoure who has been absent since the start of last month with a foot injury. The Toffees have won just once in his absence.
James Rodriguez though will once again miss out with a calf problem suffered in the warm-up against Aston Villa last weekend. The Colombian is scheduled to resume training on Monday.
What they said
Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti: “Every time you have problems, you have to move forward, to give confidence to the players.
“After a bad performance or defeat, the history of this season says... we were able to move on with a fantastic result. “There are a lot of examples.
“When we lost at home against Fulham, one week later we won the derby. It was this kind of season.
“I am sure the reaction will be fantastic for the game against West Ham.”
West Ham manager David Moyes: “I’ve got great respect for Carlo Ancelotti and I’ve got great respect for Everton as a football club, so all of those things make it a big day.
“We both know that we’re fighting for a spot in Europe and I’m hoping that here at West Ham we can make it. We’ll continue to try and play well and give the performances to give us that chance.
“We’ll see two sides who know the importance of winning the game. Everton will realise that if they can beat us they’re back in with a chance of getting above us and then qualifying for Europe.
We know if we win then we’ll keep some distance on them, but we’re looking above and trying to see if we can catch the teams above us. For us to get three points would be really, really big for us. Our home form has been good so we have to try and make that work again.”
The contrast between Everton’s home and away form is vast, so heading out on the road may be cause for optimism. But they will be taking on a West Ham side with the bit between their teeth and showing the kind of desire currently lacking in the Toffees side. It would not surprise me one bit if they came out with the win, but the way West Ham are playing I fear another damaging defeat looms.