Fulham and beyond is the litmus test for Martinez

Posted by Luke O'Farrell

Everton and Roberto Martinez emerged from the toughest week of their season with dignity intact and reputations enhanced. The Old Trafford hoodoo was ended and then, despite the points haul dropping from three to one, the team's performance went up a level at the Emirates.

Moving forward, though, the litmus test comes in the weeks ahead. The visit of Fulham kick-starts a run of rather more winnable fixtures, the kind in which victories are a requirement if European ambitions are to be realised.

A trip to Swansea is sandwiched between home encounters with Fulham, on Saturday, and visits from Sunderland and Southampton. An added incentive for Everton in this trio of home matches is a chance to end a calendar year unbeaten at Goodison Park, which is something the Blues have not done since 1962.

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The New Year begins with a trip to a Stoke side, who were convincingly dismantled in November's reverse fixture; Norwich are the opponents in the first home game in 2014 before Everton travel to West Brom. The Merseyside derby follows and signals the start of a tougher run.

Therefore, this festive and New Year run of games is of paramount importance and could make or break the season with the ability they have to leave Martinez's men off the pace or primed for a sustained assault on the Premier League's upper echelons.

The Achilles' heel of this team, especially in recent years under David Moyes, was a failure to turn draws into wins. The Toffees falling short of Europe last season owed far more to an inability to dispose of the so-called lesser lights of the division than anything else.

Indeed, while it is hard to fault Martinez -- the new manager has excelled in the early stages of his tenure -- one potential criticism is this very same failing. Though it borders on hypercritical, the fact is that draws against Norwich, West Brom, Cardiff and Crystal Palace may count against Everton in the final reckoning.

John Peters/Man Utd/Getty ImagesEverton are unbeaten in eight league games.

On a more positive note, the pleasing aspect is that the players have already laid down a marker as they approach this busy run. The demolition of Stoke set the standard for quick, passing football and ruthless finishing and contrasted to those earlier draws in which Everton passed without purpose and struggled to create clear openings. The rewards continued to be reaped against Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Needing to open this seven-match run with three points and a continuation of the performances witnessed on the road last week, Everton could not have found better opponents, short of picking them out of a line-up.

Winless in league matches at Goodison, Fulham have lost their last 20 against the blue half of Merseyside and can boast just four draws from 25 trips, dating back to 1949. New Cottagers boss, Rene Meulensteen, has his work cut out in what is only his third match in charge.

Nevertheless, aside from incredible home records and the need to beat those in the lower reaches of the league, Martinez has a decision to make on Saturday. With James McCarthy suspended, his consistent selection requires breaking up.

The obvious option is Leon Osman, although John Heitinga can also fill the holding role, or there is the bolder choice of moving Ross Barkley into central midfield and unleashing Gerard Deulofeu on the defence that he terrorised in the League Cup earlier in the season.

Many will hope for the latter, as it would send out a definitive signal of intent and further highlight the confident mood going at he club. Regardless of who gets the nod, though, the eventual outcome is the most important aspect.

Everton need to send out a message to the sides around them by overcoming those below them.

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