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Hot Off The Press: Everton

Sky Sports' Ben Grounds previews The Toffees

4 February 2022

Rafa Benitez was sacked in January, as Everton hovered just a few points above the Premier League relegation zone with five wins on the board all season. How have the past two months panned out, from a Toffees perspective?

 January 2022 felt a never-ending period of strife for Evertonians. Progress in the FA Cup following an unconvincing 3-2 win in extra time at Hull offered little relief. Three straight losses in the league across the month continued an alarming drop-off in form which had started long before the 1-0 defeat at Brentford in late November. That day, supporters expressed their anger towards the team and Rafael Benitez following another insipid display on the road. One win in 14 Premier League games tells its own story. The loss to Norwich signalled the end of Benitez, but the latest loss at home to Aston Villa, with Duncan Ferguson in caretaker charge, shows the problems have not suddenly gone away. That said, the arrival of Frank Lampard has certainly felt like a cloud has finally been lifted above the club - and his arrival has already attracted new faces.

You mentioned new manager Frank Lampard there. How would you describe the initial reaction to his appointment?

 Things had been toxic for some time among supporters by the time "Vitor Pereira Out, Frank Lampard In" was being graffitied onto the walls of Goodison during an excruciating recruitment process for Benitez's successor. It represented the disconnect between the board and supporters who would later protest outside the Royal Liver Building, where club offices are based. It had seemed that Pereira was owner Farhad Moshiri's first choice, but following a second round of interviews, an extraordinary appearance on Sky Sports News by Pereira and fan pressure, the initial feeling towards Lampard being appointed is one of relief. One of the major reasons why fans were so in favour of having the former Derby and Chelsea boss as the new figurehead was his ability to attract names to the club, in much the same way Steven Gerrard has already done so at Aston Villa. Lampard's pull has already paid dividends with the arrivals of Donny van de Beek and Dele Alli - though both are cup-tied against Brentford.

In the last round, it took extra time to finally see off Hull City. How high on the list of priorities do you think a run in the FA Cup is this season?

I would say it is still a top priority for Evertonians. The dissent towards the board has centred around the club's failure to win any silverware during the course of the past 27 years, and so ending the wait for a trophy is always the number one ambition every season. Everton have played in the top flight of English football for all but four seasons since the 1888 creation of the Football League, playing at the top level continuously since 1954. While the club are currently only four points off the relegation zone, the debate over whether fans would sacrifice their top-flight status if it meant winning the FA Cup this term is one that I would rather not entertain. The troubles at Birmingham City when being relegated in the same season they won the League Cup in 2011 and the manner in which Wigan have tumbled down another division since lifting the FA Cup in 2013 shows there are no guarantees of an immediate return. Lampard will need to think smart with his selection given a crucial encounter with Newcastle takes place on Tuesday, but a win would certainly generate some much-needed confidence heading into what appears already at this stage to be a relegation six-pointer.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on Saturday?

With Alli and Van de Beek unavailable, the onus is on those who may now feel their places are far from assured in the Everton side to provide that creative spark. Alex Iwobi is back in contention following Nigeria's elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations, while Richarlison stayed at Finch Farm during the recent international break as Brazil agreed it was best for the forward to use the extra time to fully recover from a calf problem. Neither have been at their best so far this season, but with Dominic Calvert-Lewin still easing his way back to full fitness, Lampard will turn to the pair to take the load off his striker.

How is Lampard likely to set up his side?

Despite it being Lampard's first game in charge and his own decorated history in the competition as a player having won the FA Cup four times, Everton's new boss is likely to have one eye on the Newcastle game. It might mean an opportunity for Vitalii Mykolenko at left-back after the Ukrainian was left out entirely by Ferguson in his final game as caretaker boss, while Michael Keane will also hope to be recalled in defence. Asmir Begovic played in goal against Hull and therefore could be in line for another appearance in place of Jordan Pickford, but I expect Lampard to still select a strong team. Calvert-Lewin needs to get firing again and going into the Newcastle game with some momentum would be extremely welcome.

An Ivan Toney penalty sealed a 1-0 win for Thomas Frank's men in the last meeting back in November, but what’s your score prediction this time around?

A sign of how the mood has transformed among Everton supporters was the scramble to obtain a ticket for Lampard's bow this weekend. Being knocked out of the FA Cup, irrespective of the perilous position in the Premier League, would certainly sting and would take the shine off an encouraging week off the pitch. A win of any kind would have fans believing form can be taken back into the league - and the desire to impress the new manager in front of a raucous Goodison Park crowd could just tip the balance in Everton's favour. My prediction is a 2-1 home win.


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