Everton hit the road again on Saturday evening with a tricky looking trip to Aston Villa, though they do so with a spring in their step after Monday’s stirring comeback win against Burnley.
The Toffees struggled early on against Sean Dyche’s side, but a tactical tweak from Rafael Benitez unlocked the door as Everton scored three in six minutes to turn the game on its head.
It was the first game I have attended at Goodison since March 2020 and was a reminder, if I ever needed one, of just how special the Grand Old Lady can be.
The noise when Andros Townsend’s howitzer went in was something to behold, only for it to be eclipsed moments later when Demarai Gray slotted home the third.
Everton will need to harness the power of the Goodison crowd if they are to be successful this season and the early signs suggest they are doing just that.
Ten points from four games and a place in the top four is a fantastic return, with Benitez’s eye for detail seemingly extracting more from players who flattered to deceive at times last season.
It is still early days of course and it has been a relatively kind start. Tougher challenges lie in wait in the next few weeks and will give us a greater sense of where Everton are as a team - starting on Saturday.
Aston Villa have been on an upward curve for a few years now following that disastrous relegation in 2016. Dean Smith’s side have established themselves back in the top flight and are now competing with Everton for a top-eight spot.
Like the Toffees with Romelu Lukaku in 2017, Villa lost a key player this summer in Jack Grealish. We all know how badly Everton spent the proceeds, Villa looked to have been a bit cuter in the market.
The arrivals of Leon Bailey, Emi Buendia and Danny Ings look to be good signings and should go a long way towards making up for the creativity lost with Grealish’s departure.
Ings has already shown his worth with two goals, while Bailey and Beundia are still to fully settle.
A tally of four points from four games reflects that period of transition, though I thought they were extremely unlucky at Chelsea last weekend as they showed signs of hitting their stride.
It all adds up to what should be a tough away test for Everton at one of the most historic grounds in the country. Every time the two sides meet it is always mentioned that it is the most-played fixture in English football between two founder members of the Football League.
With both teams seemingly on the up, it should be a thrilling latest chapter of this long-running encounter.
Rafa Benitez confirmed in his news conference that Dominic Calvert-Lewin will be out for at least two-to-three weeks with a broken foot.
James Rodriguez is “training normally” with the team but it remains to be seen whether he will be included in the matchday squad.
Aston Villa 0-0 Everton, May 13, 2021
A dour encounter during the season run-in as Everton’s European challenge continued to stall. Forgettable.
What they said
Everton manager Rafael Benitez: “Aston Villa are investing money and have good players and the manager is doing a good job.
“It is an offensive team, an attacking team. We have to be strong in defence and be sure we can score goals and keep the same mentality of not giving up until the end of the game.
“I know the city and how Evertonians want their players to perform on the pitch.
“The main thing for me is to see a lot of players trying their best.
“Not players thinking they are very good, or don’t care.
“This group of players care and are working hard to try to improve every day.”
Aston Villa boss Dean Smith: “I believe that we’ll be challenging each other for a top half finish this season. They’ve started really well, but they also started really well last season.
“Like ourselves, they won the first four games and they’ve started unbeaten this season as well. It’s certainly a challenge.
“I’m full of respect for Rafa Benitez. He’s an experienced coach and he understands this league at this level.
“Over the last couple of seasons since we’ve been back in the Premier League, we’ve got a really good record against them. Hopefully that can continue.”
This has all the makings of a fantastic match between two talented sides in front of a packed crowd at one of England’s most historic stadiums. It also represents a real test of the progress made under Benitez against a side who have a decent recent record against the Toffees. A win would obviously be great, but a point is nothing to be sniffed at either.