Newcastle United – Everton
The first game of 2013, and a big boost for Everton will be the return of Marouane Fellaini on the completion of his three-match ban for headbutting Sunderland defender Ryan Shawcross last month. But it seems unlikely that many of the other injured half-team of players who missed out against Chelsea will be available, with the possible exception of Phil Neville.
The yellow-card rule changes too: seven yellow cards are now needed before an automatic one-match ban kicks in. This should provide welcome relief to Osman and Neville, who are both sitting on four yellows. Although Fellaini has received six yellow cards, having picked up another since he served a one-match ban back in November, his count is presumably reset to one for this next disciplinary cycle.
The challenge for Champions League places has hotted up since Everton were able to cling tenaciously in or around 4th place for most of the Autumn programme. But the monied teams around them have finally shown improved form, with a four-point gap now opening up beneath the top four, and Everton in danger of seeing a significant gap start to develop after the agonizing loss of a major six-pointer with Chelsea at Goodison Park on Sunday.
Everton are still struggling to implement the rigours of an effective defence that can deliver clean sheets: they have managed just two in the first 20 games of the season. Two players appear to be the focus of fans’ concerns in this regard: Tim Howard’s erratic goalkeeping, and Johnny Heitinga’s questionable degree of commitment. While Howard has been between the sticks in every game, it would be unfair to blame him for all of the goals that have been given away; although Heitinga has started just under half of those games, with often frustrating performances that seem to have pleased few Evertonians.
And upfront, the frustrations that continue to plague Nikica Jelavic show little sign of abating as the Croatian worked hard to create but then spurned three golden chances that would have completely changed the game against Chelsea. While it remains frustrating to see him going out wide with the ball when he should be front and centre to finish himself rather than make chances for others, he appears to be putting in plenty of effort — almost too much in terms of the equally frustrating tendency for not staying onside as attacks develop.
Some say Jelavic just needs a goal, but there’s much more to it than that. He’s scored six but none of them have seen things really turn around as he seems to have almost completely lost that lethal knack for scoring with his first touch. Some have said it’s lack of service, but that was certainly not the case against Chelsea. The most worrying possibility is that the natural goalscoring game he brought to Everton a year ago has somehow been changed, to no good effect.
The biggest irony is that, on his arrival from Rangers, he slotted right into his new team and continued to fire in his trademark first-touch goals almost at will until the Premier League season ended. Yet, with the supposed benefit of the much hyped pre-season training beloved of the manager, and described in almost horrific terms by some of the players, he has simply not been himself since.
Newcastle are without Danny Simpson after the full-back broke a toe in the 7 – 3 slaughter by Arsenal, and there is speculation surrounding the future of lethal striker Demba Ba, who has been talking with Chelsea. Midfielder Yohan Cabaye and defender Steven Taylor are not fit enough for a first-team return. Everton are no strangers to horrific scorelines against The Gunners and will be hoping the Magpies are still shellshocked and not in too much of a mood to prove a point by bouncing back. Indeed, with just 20 points from the first half of the season, Newcastle sit on the cusp of the relegation battle, which might make manager Alan Pardew question some of his more overblown statements about the club and how it was operating in a different league to Everton.
Let’s hope The Blues can help to make that different league bit come true and hasten their decent to the Championship by bucking the trend of recent visits to Tyneside — Everton have won just one of their last 10 matches away at Newcastle.
pick: over 2,5