January 17, 2015

Everton went their first 24 matches of the Premier League season without consecutive wins, so when it happened last weekend with a three-goal lead before the interval, supporters' sighs of relief might well have been accompanied by puzzlement as to why this was all so difficult in the first place.

Whatever the reason, it's part of a dominant three-match span in all competitions for the ascending Toffees, who welcome West Bromwich Albion to Goodison Park Saturday having scored plenty and conceded none since a disappointing exit from the League Cup 2 1/2 weeks ago.

Last Saturday's 3-0 win at Stoke City was Everton's third straight by that scoreline following a home win over Newcastle United three days prior and a Jan. 31 victory at Carlisle United in the FA Cup. The impressive stretch follows a 3-1 loss to Manchester City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinals in which Everton scored first and had a firm grip on a trip to Wembley.

The response is the form the Toffees (8-11-6) had hinted at a number of times in convincing wins this season but had never been able to sustain through consecutive weeks, as is indicated by a top-five goal difference (plus-12) that's not quite in tune with their eighth-place standing. In fact, no one below them has a positive goal differential, and the fall off of 16 to Liverpool in ninth - also with 35 points - is the most drastic between any two spots in the division.

At the Britannia Stadium, Romelu Lukaku converted from the spot in the 11th minute, Seamus Coleman added to the lead in the 28th and Aaron Lennon scored in his third straight match in the 42nd.

"This week has been massive for us," Tom Cleverley told the club's official website. "Three 3-0 wins in seven days after the disappointment we had the week before, we really needed this week to change the dynamic of our season going forward and we're really thrilled with the result."

Ross Barkley has scored four goals in his last four games in all competitions, and Everton's 46 league goals are one back of Leicester City and Manchester City for the league lead. As if their attacking options don't seem adequate enough at the moment, Oumar Niasse is set to potentially make his club debut after signing on deadline day for £13.5 million from Lokomotiv Moscow.

The scoring surplus has been accompanied by 284 minutes of scoreless football in the Toffees' end, which is likely the greater relief for a side keen on exposing their own backline. But here's the rub: Their top goalless run of the season has come with a second-choice goalkeeper, and the No. 1 is said to be nearing fitness. Joel Robles is the man with three straight clean sheets while Tim Howard has been sidelined with a knee problem.

If Howard is ready to play, a difficult selection call falls on manager Roberto Martinez in a season in which Howard hasn't always been his reliable self and transfer rumours of the American moving back stateside have swirled.

"Joel had to fill in for Tim and has done magnificently well," Martinez said. "I have always said that football makes a decision and we want competition for places. That's what makes the squad we have so competitive. ... As a manager, those are the sort of decisions you want to have."

There's also the matter of John Stones, who has missed the last two matches with a hamstring injury, but Martinez said the 21-year-old defender and Howard could face West Brom.

Everton won the reverse fixture 3-2 at The Hawthorns on Sept. 28 after the Baggies led 2-0 in the 54th minute on goals from Saido Berahino and Craig Dawson. Lukaku then had his way with the West Brom defence, scoring in the 55th minute, assisting Arouna Kone in the 75th and completing his brace with the 84th-minute winner.

The Baggies (7-8-10) haven't won at Goodison Park since 2010-11 when they did the double over Everton, and the Toffees have lost once (6-3-1) in all competitions against West Brom since.

Tony Pulis' club have shown no signs of being able to improve on that lately, scraping into the round of 16 in the FA Cup by beating League One side Peterborough United on penalties Wednesday, with goalkeeper Ben Foster stopping two of them. The victory, though, likely cost them Gareth McAuley, who left on 19 minutes after aggravating a thigh injury, for this match.

The tense victory followed a 1-0 loss at Newcastle last Saturday, and the Baggies are winless in five across all competitions as well as the league and have three points from a seven-match winless span on the road.

"I've been with the club for over a year, and that's the most disappointing away performance we've had," Pulis told the club's official website. "We shadowboxed for 90-odd minutes. Newcastle was just better all over the pitch. It's a disappointing result for us. Today I totally understand (the fans') frustrations."

They've scored once in their last four in the league, failing to take advantage of a soft patch against relegation-threatened sides Aston Villa, Swansea City and the Magpies.

Now, it's onto Everton followed Crystal Palace and three top-five teams, hardly a comfortable stretch for a club that's fallen to 14th with six points separating them from the drop.

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