Everton begin 2022 with a home match against Brighton after an unexpected Covid-induced winter break that decimated their festive fixture list.
Matches against Leicester, Burnley and Newcastle will now all have to be rearranged, meaning there will have been a 17-day gap between the Toffees’ last match against Chelsea and their meeting with the Seagulls and nearly a month since their last match at Goodison.
At least Everton didn’t ruin your Christmas.
On one hand the break is a welcome chance to get players fit and firing for the second half of the season, while those who were unfortunate enough to test positive for Covid were afforded time to recover.
However, preparations for Sunday’s game have hardly been smooth, with boss Rafa Benitez admitting he could only plan training sessions daily as he would not know who would be able to take part given the rapid spread of the Omicron Covid variant.
With so many games postponed the table also has a rather uneven look about it, though it cannot disguise Everton’s poor position.
Slumped down in 15th, the eight point gap between themselves and the relegation zone means there is no need to panic just yet (though the fact we are even talking about that is worrying). A win here though and they could jump several places and within touching distance of the top 10, a target they should be aiming for between now and May.
The absence of matches means the heat of Benitez has been turned down slightly, while the arrival of Vitaly Mykolenko is the perfect start to the January transfer window.
We know Everton’s finances are tight, but reinforcements are badly needed so the arrival of the 22-year-old is welcome, even if he does not directly address some of the glaring deficiencies in the squad.
All those issues cannot be solved in one window, but one or two more signings in key positions and I’m optimistic the second half of the campaign will be less traumatic than the first.
When Carlo Ancelotti upped sticks and left in June Brighton boss Graham Potter was among the favourites to succeed him at Goodison Park.
You can understand why. Potter has earned a reputation for being an innovative, modern coach who builds teams that play attractive, attacking football.
He is helped by Brighton having a clear management and coaching structure (Everton boardroom take note), with savvy recruitment making the most of their transfer budget and contributing towards a clearly defined style of play.
After 15th and 16th-place finishes Potter currently has the Seagulls riding high in the top 10 and almost certain to secure a fifth successive season in the Premier League – their best-ever run in the top flight.
They head to Merseyside having lost just once on the road this season, though they have never won at Goodison Park in nine attempts, losing all four of their Premier League matches there.
Brighton 0-2 Everton, August 28 2021
In one of Everton’s most impressive performances of the season so far, goals from Demarai Gray and Dominic Calvert-Lewin made it two wins from three games to start the season back in August.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin is fit and available to return for the first time since the reverse meeting at the Amex Stadium in August, though me may not be risked from the start.
Richarlison and Andros Townsend are sidelined with calf and foot injuries respectively, though Tom Davies could return after knee problem.
The likes of Yerry Mina and Salomon Rondon were also carrying injuries but it remains to be seen whether the enforced break has given them enough time to be recover.
There is also the spectre of Covid 19, with the club understandably refusing to name those struck down by the virus.
What they said
Everton boss Rafa Benitez: “When we played against them in the first part of the league, we did quite well.
“At that time, Brighton were in a situation where they were not losing any games. Now, they have drawn some games but have still had chances in them to win – but, also, they can concede. Hopefully we can be strong in defence and a threat in attack and get the three points.
“Graham Potter is doing a good job. They have a way to play, and they can change the system and still play in this way. They are in a good position in the Premier League and playing with a lot of confidence. It will be a tough game for us.”
“We are really pleased to play in front of our fans. We have been talking about how important the fans are for us.
“They know we need them. Hopefully we can play a good game and we can win, and they can enjoy the game.
“We have confidence we can do well and, with the fans behind us, it will be easier for us.”
Brighton head coach Graham Potter: “As a team we’ve been really resilient, we’ve been together, had some quality.
“Our travelling support have really helped us and been fantastic, so a combination of everything, a bit of luck as you need that.
“We need to play well again, to have that same resilience at Goodison Park, a tough place to go.”
“They’re fighting for points, we met them earlier in the season and they deservedly won, we didn’t play well, so we need to do better.”
The disrupted Christmas programme means there is a degree of uncertainty about this fixture as Everton have no real recent form going into it.
It is a match they should be looking to win, but Brighton are a much tougher prospect this season and claimed a deserved point at Chelsea last time out.
If Everton are close to full strength, I’d back them to win. but more than a handful of key players out and I rapidly lose faith.