West Ham United-Everton Preview
It's been an up-and-down season for the blue half of Liverpool to this point, but Roberto Martinez's side is shooting to keep some positive momentum as well as a second consecutive Premier League victory Saturday when the Toffees host West Ham United at Goodison Park.
Everton's quest to secure European football for next season, a least through a fifth-place finish in the Premier League, seems unlikely, but the club is still alive in the FA Cup and will want to produce a quality performance Saturday before hosting Chelsea in the FA Cup quarterfinals March 12.
The Toffees (9-11-7) had little trouble with last-place Aston Villa on Tuesday, cruising to a 3-1 win at Villa Park behind goals from Ramiro Funes Mori, who opened the scoring after just five minutes, Aaron Lennon on the half-hour mark and Romelu Lukaku on the hour mark.
Everton, who have slipped to 11th in the table behind resurgent defending champions Chelsea, have the opportunity to climb the standings with their next three games all at home.
"It is the sort of period that we have been looking forward to. To have three games of that magnitude at Goodison - somewhere we want to please our fans and show we can win games consistently, and bring all the good football and good fun that we have had on the road - you couldn't get a better challenge," Martinez said at his pre-match press conference.
"We have West Ham, who have just beaten Spurs in midweek, then Chelsea who we know well from having played them twice already this season, before welcoming Arsenal, a team still challenging for the title. So they are three significant home games for us before the international break and, as you can imagine, it is an exciting period, but one where we need to be really strong."
Despite the rollercoaster nature of their season, Martinez hopes Everton's young core will grow and progress from lessons learned during a difficult league campaign.
"At times, in any young group, you are going to have ups and downs. What you never lose is that bravery, work rate and enthusiasm to win football games. "Romelu and Ross (Barkley) are 22, while John (Stones) and Gerard (Deulofeu) are 21. But I don't think we have had ups and downs in performances and we are starting to get the rewards ... we need to show that we have learned this season and have become a team that knows how to manage leads a little bit better and knows how to get through 90 minutes in a more experienced way."
West Ham (12-10-6), by contrast, have had an unexpectedly successful season and already matched their win total from last term. Led by first-year manager Slaven Bilic, the east Londoners find themselves in the thick of the Champions League chase as the season heads toward the run-in.
The Hammers success continued with their last league effort, a 1-0 victory over an in-form Tottenham side, as Michail Antonio netted the eventual winner on seven minutes. The victory moved West Ham into sixth, one point behind both Manchester sides, and like Everton, they have a chance to be in the FA Cup semifinals as they face Manchester United at Old Trafford next weekend.
"It feels great and you know better than me that if you have to take one game in a season as being more special than the others, it is home against Spurs, of course," Bilic said. "We were fantastic. It was maybe the best performance so far. In every aspect it was the perfect game. From the first whistle we were on the front foot and dominating and on our front foot."
Martinez has certainly taken notice of Bilic's success, complimenting his Croatian counterpart on a job well-done.
"It is remarkable (the job he has done). It is not easy to arrive into the Premier League as a manager. I know that he is close to the British game and has had really good experiences as a player but nothing compares to being the manager."
West Ham will be without central defender James Collins, who is expected to miss at least a month with a hamstring injury suffered in Wednesday's victory. Reece Oxford, who entered for Collins in the 66th minute, may be first in line to pair with Angelo Ogbonna.
The sides played to a 1-1 draw on Nov. 7 at Upton Park as Lukaku and Manuel Lanzini traded first-half goals. It ended a six-match losing streak to Everton, but the Hammers are winless and without a clean sheet in 15 top-flight matches (0-5-10) versus the Toffees since a 1-0 victory in 2007.