As one part of a Manchester versus Merseyside Super Sunday, Everton host Manchester City this week. A match that could prove pivotal for two sides who endured troubled ends to 2016, this one provides a chance at a fresh start heading into 2017. When they met previously, Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman were regarded as the two early pace setters for Premier League management. That game ended in a 1-1 draw in Manchester, but a lot has changed since that October clash.
In true Premier League fashion, Manchester City were appointed Champions-elect in the early knockings of the campaign, while Everton looked set to hustle their way through the door into the exclusive dining area that was meant to be kept for the ‘top six’. City are now under threat of failing to make the top four themselves and Everton are nine points away from sixth-placed Manchester United. Early season signals seldom hold out to be anything more than form, but the collapse of both teams since then has been alarming.
City are underachieving domestically this season. Being in close competition for the title was the expectation despite the weaknesses Guardiola inherited. Everton, though, are doing alright. In terms of league position, at least. Seventh place in the Premier League would fall in line with just about as good as anyone could have expected them to achieve this season. The worry for Koeman has been the standard of performances that suggest a slide further into the midriff of the division is ahead.
Despite the significance of the fixture and the bubbling undercurrent around the two managers, this match is firmly on the undercard ahead of Manchester United and Liverpool’s showdown later on Sunday afternoon. Slightly away from the spotlight (as much as a team can be in the Premier League) Manchester City must take advantage of a weekend when one or both of Liverpool and Manchester United will drop points. Everton, meanwhile, need to pick up points to hold off the persistent advances of West Bromwich Albion. The Toffees are currently leading the second tier within the Premier League and the ‘best of the rest’ tag is all they have to play for after being knocked out of the FA Cup last weekend.
Victory against Southampton on January 2nd quietened some of the questions being asked of Koeman. His Toffees, though, have put additional pressure on themselves with FA Cup elimination and must see seventh place as theirs from here on in. Whilst it may carry little weight for some, it would confirm their status as the next in line, waiting to slide through the door into the Premier League’s exclusive dining clique.
With money to spend this month and in the summer, this season is about rebuilding to be ready to make a significant charge towards the top six next season. Performing well and taking points from the top table at Goodison Park is just the start, but it is a necessary step in their development as a team. Challenging away fixtures against Crystal Palace and Stoke City follow the visit of Guardiola’s side, making the result on Sunday all the more important. Perform well and pick up points and the Toffees will take crucial momentum in those games, struggle against Manchester City and it could be the beginning of a slide for Koeman’s men.
The visitors, meanwhile, face in-form Tottenham in their following league match. With even their top four status under threat, two draws is the bare minimum they can afford, particularly with the performances Manchester United have been producing of late. Guardiola’s side walked all over an abject West Ham United in the FA Cup last weekend, but this trip to Goodison will be an altogether different proposition. Everton have the players to be devastating on the counter-attack and the prospect of Romelu Lukaku running at the City defence will certainly make Guardiola feel a little uneasy.
For two managers who have had difficult winter months, this match is a pivotal moment. Significant in its long-term impact for Everton, it is Manchester City who are in greater need of the points in the shorter-term. Guardiola and Koeman are grasping for ways to return to the form of August and September and what better way to do it than against another team who are struggling for balance.