Time for Everton to return to winning ways

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

Sandwiched between a collection of ominous fixtures, with trips to Manchester United and Arsenal on the horizon -- two of the least popular dates on the Everton calendar -- Stoke's visit on Saturday comes with added pressure.

Following on from the Merseyside derby, which provided exhilaration and frustration in equal measure, this fixture falls into the dreaded must-win category, as the derby ensured a third league draw in a row.

The need for victory only increases when surveying the recent records of those forthcoming jaunts to Manchester and London. Everton are winless at Old Trafford since August 1992, and last returned from Arsenal with three points in January 1996.

-Toffees will be without Baines

Consequently, though the season is still nearer to the beginning than the end, three points are paramount on Saturday, although that is never an easy task against notoriously difficult opponents who often overwhelm Everton with their robust approach.

Mark Hughes, Sam Allardyce
GettyImagesMark Hughes is looking to revive his managerial career at Stoke.

Until Kevin Mirallas snared a fine solo strike in the corresponding fixture last season, the Blues had gone four matches without scoring against Stoke. Having failed to score while slipping to 1-0 and 2-0 defeats, Everton relied on own goals in successive 1-1 draws.

Hard-fought attritional battles are the staple of recent meetings between these two, with the reactive styles of David Moyes and Tony Pulis ensuring predominantly cagey affairs. As a result, each of the last eight meetings featured two goals or less.

There is, however, a flicker of hope heading into this usually drab spectacle. Unshackled by the departures of their mechanical former managers, with Pulis especially cautious on trips to Goodison, this match has the potential to serve up a watchable contest. Recent 3-3 draws, against Liverpool and Swansea respectively, point to the obvious shift within the camps.

Adding some proverbial spice into the mix is the presence of Mark Hughes in the opposing dugout. Hughes is a rare commodity; he is one of a handful of former players who can expect a less-than-warm welcome when revisiting Goodison. His unabashed pursuit of Joleon Lescott washed away any fleeting memories from his short-lived stint in royal blue.

Moving away from managers and onto personnel, Everton are, unfortunately, set to be without the constant, consistent presence of Leighton Baines. Only one hand is required to count the number of matches missed in recent years.

Once the initial settling-in period elapsed, and Baines cemented his place in the side, the left back became an increasingly dependable figure. His current run of consecutive league appearances stands at 51, while October 2009 to April 2012 saw 99 successive league outings -- only a well-earned rest prevented the century.

In total, playing every second of every match in the last two seasons, Baines has missed just six of Everton’s last 164 league games. Armed with various alternatives, from the bold to the bewildering, Roberto Martinez has a difficult yet intriguing task selecting his Baines replacement.

Nonetheless, while adjusting to the rarity of a league match without their ever-present full back, there is an added incentive for the Toffees, who are the only team in the division unbeaten at home in 2013.

Currently unbeaten in 15 on their own turf (10-5-0), Everton can match their own Premier League record with a positive result. Avoid defeat and the unbeaten streak will equal the club’s previous best of 16 from April 1999-March 2000.

Closer inspection underlines the imperious form at Fortress Goodison. Dating to March 2012, the home league record is 19 wins and 9 draws with a solitary defeat to Chelsea in December 2012 along the way.

Striving to continue the all-action attacking display evident in the derby, the most important aspect is the continuation of the high tempo. Tending to fluctuate between aimless possession and the kind of dynamism witnessed last weekend, Everton will want to continue their learning curve on the path conducive to flowing football, starting with Stoke on Saturday.

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