As we all continue to mourn the conclusion of another international break (yeah, right), the Premier League is back again this weekend. Fresh from that remarkable 2-0 victory over Manchester City, Everton will restart their charge towards a European place as Stoke City travels to Goodison Park in Saturday’s evening kick off.
The Toffees will be without two of their most prominent attackers, as Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar miss this and one more game due to suspension. But they still have enough to come out on top against The Potters.
Stoke City has been in rotten form ahead of this one. No team has picked up fewer points in the Premier League this calendar year than Tony Pulis’ side, despite having been hyped up as one of Europe’s premier defensive units earlier in the season.
Unfortunately, those days seem a distant memory. They have found it tough going since the turn of the year. They’ll stay up, but in reality, their season is over.
But while a lot of teams in this situation could be accused of being “on the beach already”, Stoke will be very much up for Saturday's match, as they always are. You can’t see them rolling over for David Moyes and his Everton team.
So the onus will be very much on Everton to go out and put in a performance equivalent to that of the Manchester City game.
Everyone knows how Stoke go about their business. They will try and stay compact, get the ball forward quickly and win set-pieces in dangerous areas. In many respects, The Potters have a lot of strengths that look tailored towards getting at Everton weaknesses, most notably their potency from dead-ball opportunities.
Everton has been nothing short of useless recently when it comes to defending free-kicks, so defensively it’ll be an especially big test for the likes of John Heitinga, Sylvain Distin and goalkeeper Ján Mucha. Quite simply, there must be a big improvement in that area.
Despite the weapons Stoke have, Everton will have the ball for a vast chunk of match and should be able to limit these opportunities. When Everton are in possession, they need show invigorating and vibrant play. As I have already alluded to, with Pienaar and Fellaini out of the side, the creative duties must be assumed by others.
Here is the side I would start with on Saturday:
After his goal a fortnight ago, Nikica Jelavić should come into the side in place of Fellaini. The relief was there for all to see after his strike against City and getting that weight off his shoulders will hopefully see him play with some renewed confidence.
The second change I would make is a more difficult decision, but I’ve gone for Ross Barkley in place of Steven Pienaar on the right-hand side. Everton doesn’t really have great depth in the wide ares. With Bryan Oviedo featured little and Steven Naismith really struggling for form, Barkley should finally get his chance to start this season.
To break down a team like Stoke, you need dynamic, bright players. Barkley certainly has the edge on both Naismith and Oviedo in that respect, not to mention the fact he looks a lot classier in possession. Out of the three options, Barkley is best placed to help Everton to make their dominance in possession count.
The area that Everton will look at to win this game is through the attacking efforts of their full-backs. Both Mirallas and Barkley will drift into central areas, thus giving space to the marauding Leighton Baines and Séamus Coleman.
The Stoke midfield will be tight-knit and narrow, looking to limit the space for Everton to create chances. This will leave space in wide areas, however, so expect Baines and Coleman to see a significant amount of the ball.
Both players have shown the damage they can do when bombing forward into advanced positions. Baines is still the top chance creator in the league, whereas Coleman has really started to grow into his role as a full-back.
The Toffees need to pass the ball out from the back and create space for both of these players. Too often in past games against Stoke, Everton has been dragged into a battle of attrition. If Heitinga and Distin start to go direct, Everton will be in for a long afternoon.
Everton need to keep composed, keep their heads and show their class. If they can do that, expect a very happy Goodison Park come Saturday evening.
What are your thoughts ahead of this weekends game?
Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball