With the distraction of the transfer window out the way, a leaner Everton squad prepares for a midweek trip to Stoke City looking to register a fourth successive win in the Premier League.
Ronald Koeman steered the Blues to the same feat back in August, a run of results that took them second in the table behind early pace-setters Manchester City; this time, the Dutchman is hoping for three more points to keep up the pressure on the teams sitting above Everton in the top six.
The transfer deadline may have closed without the addition of the one or two high-quality names that supporters were hoping would bolster the quest to finish in the European qualification places — seventh place might be enough if current top six teams win the domestic cups — but results in the league so far in 2017 have suggested that Koeman now has a settled system and a group of players he trusts.
A repeat of the performance that earned a deserved win at Crystal Palace 10 days ago would go further to strengthening that belief and raise optimism that, in contrast to Everton's stumbles through their previous stretch of supposedly “winnable” games earlier in the season, the Blues will capitalise on the current sequence of comparatively favourable fixtures to close the gap above them.
The manager is aided by a clean bill of health to all but long-term absentees Yannick Bolasie and Muhamed Besic and could name an unchanged line-up for the second game running if he is moved to do so.
He is likely to have Morgan Schneiderlin champing at the bit, however, now that he is bedded in and closer to match sharpness. The Frenchman made a move from Manchester United three weeks ago precisely because he wanted to play every week and after two substitute appearances in place of Gareth Barry, he might feel his time to start has come. With two games in the space of four days, too much for the 35-year-old Barry, that is likely to be at Stoke or at home to Bournemouth on Saturday.
Unless Koeman moves to change up his defensive formation — unlikely against a physical Stoke team that could boast Peter Crouch's aerial ability in its starting XI — it's hard to envisage many changes to the team that kicked off at Selhurst Park.
Joel Robles has already received the nod from his manager that he will be starting and the recency of Idrissa Gueye's return from Africa Cup of Nations duty has taken that difficult decision out of Koeman's hands for another few days at least. After putting in another impressively precocious performance at Palace, it seems inconceivable that Tom Davies would be dropped back to the bench but a selection headache in the centre of the park is coming.
Stoke, meanwhile, have returnees from Africa of their own who won't be involved. Neither Wilfried Bony and Mame Biram Diouf are expected to face Everton but their new signing from West Bromwich Albion, Sadio Berahino could make his debut, even if only off the bench. The striker's last couple of seasons at the Hawthorns were bogged down by controversy and debates over his temperament and attitude but he now has a new opportunity to get his career back on track.
Everton's performance at Palace should provide the template for a fixture that is never easy, even if they made it look that way last season in what was the last great away performance under Roberto Martinez. With just one win in December, the Potters have recovered somewhat since conceding eight in two games against Liverpool and Chelsea to close out 2016 by winning two in four but as Bournemouth and Wolves have shown in recent weeks, they are fallible at home.
By remaining defensively tight and restricting the service to Crouch from crosses, Koeman's men will create the platform to hopefully carve out sufficient chances at the other end to keep this winning run going.
Kick-off: 8pm, 1 February, 2017
Referee: Craig Pawson
Last Time: Stoke City 0 - 3 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Holgate, Williams, Funes Mori, Coleman, Baines, Schneiderlin, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku