Idrissa Gueye's absence through injury leaves a hole in Everton's midfield
Everton enter the home straight of a turbulent season with the first of two challenging home games as Champions-elect Manchester City come to town for the televised late afternoon kick-off on Saturday.
Any lingering threat of relegation has been banished by the first back-to-back league victories the Blues have recorded since December but the mood among the fanbase will be tempered by frustration with a lost season and uncertainty over the managerial position — and, possibly, the director of football role above him — heading into the summer.
Certainly, there won't be the same feeling of optimism and expectancy for what could be achieved as there was after the last time City came to Goodison Park… or, indeed, after the 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium last August.
This was, of course, the fixture last season that had most Evertonians believing that Ronald Koeman's reign as Toffees boss was finally starting to beat fruit. Despite starting his time at Goodison with four wins in five, his first campaign in charge had taken a stark turn for the worse over the autumn.
Starting with a stirring win over Arsenal in mid-December, however, Everton's home form began to turn around and they would win seven more of their next Premier League games on their own turf, with the 4-0 demolition of Pep Guardiola's men standing out as the jewel among them.
It was an afternoon where anything felt possible — Tom Davies announced himself to the rest of the top flight with a brilliant goal, Ademola Lookman scored with practically his first touch as an Everton player and… well, Everton smashed the much-vaunted Guardiola's team off the park. It doesn't get much better than that.
Sadly, a repeat of that result couldn't look further from being possible, not least because City have improved significantly and are coasting to the league title while the Blues have only just reached the 40-point mark.
Under David Unsworth (the calamity against Atalanta notwithstanding) and Sam Allardyce, Goodison has once again become something of a fortress but they haven't been tested at home by a top-six side since New Year's Day when they were easily dismantled by Manchester United.
Allardyce has used home form to tell anyone who will listen how well he is doing but with the visit of City this weekend and then Liverpool the week after, Everton face two of the best teams in the division in successive games. They will reveal an awful lot about just how strong the current manager has been able to make his side in front of their own fans.
He will, unfortunately, be undermined somewhat by the loss of another key member of his midfield. With James McCarthy's season already over and Gylfi Sigurdsson looking hard-pressed to avoid the same fate, Idrissa Gueye became the latest injury casualty when he reportedly tore a hamstring in training prior to the international break.
Senegal's manager suggested he was facing a three-week lay-off which would see him miss both the City game and the derby and hand an opportunity to either Beni Baningime or, more likely, Morgan Schneiderlin. The 19-year-old was a revelation when called upon by Unsworth at a difficult time earlier in the season but under Allardyce he has suffered a similar fate to many of the other young players — namely, demotion back to the bench and beyond.
At the back, Mason Holgate will be missing after undergoing ankle surgery while Ashley Williams serves the final game of his three-match suspension but the smart money would overwhelmingly be on Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane resuming their partnership in the centre.
City, meanwhile, are in far better fettle and could be in a position to welcome star striker, Sergio Agüero, back from a knee injury. The Argentine didn't figure for his country over the current international break but will be assessed before a final decision is made for this weekend.
Bernard Mendy is ruled out with a knee ligament problem but Fabian Delph will undergo a late fitness test.
Guardiola and his men know that it's just a matter of time before their coronation as Premier League champions is confirmed but that doesn't appear to have diminished their appetite. Not surprisingly, My Top Sportsbooks picks Manchester City as the strong favourites in this clash with Everton with odds as low as 1/3 to win while the Toffees are a tempting 9/1.
Though they were checked at Burnley in a 1-1 draw at the beginning of February, they have travelled to Basel, Arsenal and Stoke and won handsomely and also swept the Gunners aside to win the League Cup. On their day, they have proved to be unplayable but their recent FA Cup defeat at Wigan coupled with the fact that Everton have become something of a bogey team for Guardiola will give Allardyce hope.
Nevertheless, he will need to find a way of nullifying the ever-present threat of David Silva while also shackling Kevin de Bruyne, neither of which will be easy without the tenacious presence of Gueye.
It will be a big ask but with Leicester away at Brighton and Burnley making the trip to West Brom, there's a chance that the Blues could move into eighth place in the table and, perhaps, level on points with the Clarets in seventh if they can get a victory.
Kick-off: 5.30pm, Saturday 31 March, 2018
Referee: Paul Tierney
Last Time: Everton 4 - 0 Manchester City
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Jagielka, Keane, Baines, Schneiderlin, Rooney, Davies, Bolasie, Walcott, Tosun