After what feels like an eternity since Everton last played, the Blues are back in action at Goodison Park this weekend and Ronald Koeman has named an unchanged line-up to face a Sunderland side that is sitting on the bottom of the Premier League.
David Moyes names recent Everton departees Bryan Oviedo and Darron Gibson in his Sunderland team, with Joleon Lescott on the bench; Rodwell, Pienaar and Anichebe all injured. And for a player he brought to Everton, Leighton Baines, he makes his 300th Premier League appearance for the Blues.
It took a couple of minutes for Everton to move forward, Coleman clipping in a great cross that won a corner, turned behind at the near post by Schneiderlin. They attacked down the right again, Coleman fouled this time. Another Everton corner delivered for Schneiderlin at the near post, and a third corner played deeper this time by Barkley. Davies forcing a fourth corner, causing havoc in the Sunderland defence but cleared away. That was the first 5 minutes, all played in Sunderland's half.
A rare attack down the left saw Baines pick out Lookman, his first-time side-foot shot fumbled by Pickford. Sunderland countered and won a corner that did not really threaten but Davies's touch from Barkley's excellent ball was lacking.
Another corner from Barkley was way too low but evaded Funes Mori, who should have done more, and was too pacey for Lukaku coming in late at the far post. Borini then fouled Coleman just outside the Sunderland box, and Barkley cut the free-kick back to Lookman who seemed surprised and skied it!
Sunderland got forward again and forced another corner off a deflection that was finally cleared. Gana and Lookman combined nicely, Gana driving in from the left but firing on Pickford at a far too narrow angle instead of pulling it back.
Everton were forced to work the ball around patiently, knowing perhaps that their early intent should have seen greater care of the ball that could have brought the early goal they needed. But the cohesion of play on the final ball had so far been lacking and they already looked to be running out of ideas with just a quarter of the game gone.
A poor foul by Lookman on Ndong only merited a lecture from Stuart Atwell. Baines was next to commit an infraction, closer to the Blues goal, the delivery badly overhit by Larsson. But Sunderland were seeing a lot more of the ball, if not really threatening the Gwladys Street goal.
Larsson clipped Barkley's heel and Baines curled in a decent delivery but Williams could only head it high. Gibson then saw yellow for upending Lookman. the game had become very scrappy and lacking in structure, Sunderland getting a free kick off the left corner of the Everton area, sent in too low by Larsson and it led to a better break by Everton but the last ball in from Barkley was too close to Pickford. Lukaku was then wrongly called offside.
Finally, though, a fine sweeping move sliced through the resistant Sunderland defence. An incredibly clever curled crossfield ball from deep by Davies fooled the defender and found Coleman in space who picked out Gueye with a pinpoint cross and the finish from Everton's fine midfielder was first-time, strong and hard into the roof of the Sunderland net. A very good looking goal!
Barkley then tried his luck from outside the area and almost beat Pickford with a dipping shot. A corner ensued and later in that play, Davies put just a fraction too much curl on a fine snapshot that beat Pickford but smashed off the outside of the post behind him to wrap up the half.
Proceedings resumed under the dour scowl of David Moyes on the touchline, Lookman too easily losing the ball to Ndong, leading to a corner, and a half-chance for the Black Cats as Defoe came close with the Blues unable to break out until it went behind for a goal-kick. But the Everton were soon under pressure again, Williams blocking out well for another corner that went behind off Jones.
The Blues finally attacked, Baines getting caught by Jones but Gueye's ball selling Lookman short as Referee Atwell rightly played advantage. But Sunderland were not giving up easily, winning another corner on the Everton right but Robles held off any threat. Coleman almost got around Oviedo for an inviting ball from Barkley. A shot by Lukaku was blocked by Ndong. Davies got forward but the ball overran Coleman as Mirallas replaced Lookman.
Schneiderlin had been impressive in the Barry role, spraying accurate passes around from the centre of the field, and intercepting well, a ball to Lukaku winning a corner but again the Blues failed to penetrate, Lukaku caught flat-footed by a deflected cross. Barkley, Davies and Coleman conspired to overplay things a little without creating a chance as the Blues sought a second goal to seal the win.
But the Everton defence were living dangerously at times, and not driving forward with enough confidence and intent against an increasingly stubborn Sunderland side. Barkley had a chance to run but he stalled before finding Mirallas who shot poorly across goal, Tom Davies then being replaced by Enner Valencia.
Everton were getting sloppy at times in midfield, however, Coleman finally overlapping but his ball in to Barkley was curling behind him and he could not adjust, stretching back for the shot. Lukaku picked up the ball and ran forward but shot straight at Pickford. Lukaku again got behind the defence but Pickford anticipated his better shot and batted it away well.
Gueye was fouled poorly by Oviedo who was booked, but the free-kick was well overhit. Schneiderlin appeared to be fouled but Sunderland surged forward and Defoe looked to have scored but his shot bounced down off the bar and just in front of the line, and was eventually bundled away.
Everton were under serious pressure but, from a Sunderland corner, the ball was moved very rapidly up the right wing, Mirallas turning quickly and releasing Lukaku who scampered away with it but stumbled at the last moment as Oviedo came in and the ball deflected twice off the defender's legs, over Pickford ― a very lucky goal in the end, but they all count!
Barkley was withdrawn to a tremendous ovation from the enthusiastic Goodison crowd, McCarthy coming on to hold things down for the final 10 minutes. Valencia got free from a fine Lukaku pass and looked all set to make it three but could not get the ball past Pickford's long legs.
Into added time, Mirallas tried another shot at goal but it was off-target again. Not a scintillating performance by any means for the Blues, now undefeated in nine games, but job done and another strike against David Moyes for good measure.
Everton: Robles, Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Davies (70' Valencia), Barkley (82' McCarthy), Lookman (60' Mirallas), Lukaku.
Subs not Used: Stekelenburg, Jagielka, Holgate, Barry.
Sunderland: Pickford, Jones (90' Manquillo), Kone, O'Shea, Oviedo [Y:77'], Larsson, Gibson [Y:36'] (79' Honeyman), Ndong, Borini (79' Khazri), Januzaj, Defoe.
Subs not Used: Mika, Lescott, Love, Gooch.
Referee: Stuart Atwell
After what feels like an eternity since Everton last played, the Blues are back in action and back at Goodison Park this weekend facing a Sunderland side that is sitting on the bottom of the Premier League.
David Moyes returns to Goodison Park for the first time since he was stalked by the Grim Reaper during his last game as Manchester United boss in April 2014 still very much embroiled in his battle to keep the Black Cats in the top flight.
A run of just one win in six in the League since the turn of the year tells its own story, as did their last result, a 4-0 home defeat to Southampton that underlined their defensive frailties that will be sternly tested by a Blues side who have scored 13 goals in their last three at home.
Though Sunderland won their last away game 4-0, it was against a Crystal Palace team that is only sitting above them in 19th in the table on goal difference and their fans will travel from Wearside tomorrow in apprehensive mood.
While disappointed by the goalless draw at Middlesbrough a fortnight ago, Evertonians will, by contrast, be expectant after the feast of goals they enjoyed against Bournemouth earlier this month. Ronald Koeman will caution against any complacency though as he seeks to continue the momentum of an eight-match unbeaten run that stretches back to Boxing Day.
The Dutchman has been boosted by the confirmation that Romelu Lukaku's calf problem was relatively minor and that his trip to Belgium for treatment while the rest of the squad travelled to Dubai has apparently been a successful one. The striker has trained normally over the past three days and will be in the team when it's announced at two o'clock.
Koeman can also welcome back Kevin Mirallas and James McCarthy who both missed the Boro game with minor complaints but with that will come some selection headaches, albeit of the good kind.
Idrissa Gueye, Morgan Schneiderlin and Tom Davies were named as a central midfield trio at The Riverside and would be good bets to get the nod again over Gareth Barry (who turned 36 this week) and McCarthy. Koeman has usually selected the Irishman when fit, however, and he was impressive in his last start against Bournemouth so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him come into the side, perhaps at Davies' or Gueye's expense.
Further forward, you suspect it will be a straight choice between Mirallas and Ademola Lookman over who plays alongside Lukaku and Ross Barkley, with the calibre of the opposition maybe tempting the manager to give the youngster another start after two more weeks to settle into his new surroundings and soak up more of what Koeman expects of him.
Sunderland aren't without their threats, of course, and chief among them will be top scorer Jermaine Defoe whose ability to conjure a goal out of nothing or capitalise on the smallest defensive lapse means that he will need to be watched by whatever defensive combination Koeman goes for.
Then there is added dynamic of the band of ex-Everton players who will also be returning to Goodison, most notably Bryan Oviedo and Darron Gibson who were both in Moyes's starting XI against Southampton two weeks ago.
Gibson, in particular, will feel like he has something to prove having failed to register a start under Koeman all season while Oviedo was praised by Black Cats fans for the impact he has made coming into difficult circumstances in a that mired in another fight for survival.
There are no easy games in the Premier League but given the high spirits in the Blues' camp and their home form since the derby defeat, Everton will be strong favourites in this one. Koeman's men will need to remain focused and, perhaps, patient, if they aren't able to make an early breakthrough but if they show up on their game, they should take the three points and close the gap again on Manchester United who are in EFL Cup final action this weekend.
Kick-off: 3pm, Saturday 25th February, 2017
Referee: Stuart Atwell
Last Time: Everton 6-2 Sunderland
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Davies, Barkley, Lookman, Lukaku