At the beginning of 2020/21 Everton fans would not have expected to consider a fixture against Manchester United as critical to their ambitions this campaign. It is to Carlo Ancelotti's great credit that facing 'Big Six' teams are now important fixtures; are now moments that could show Everton are serious contenders for the top four.
But things have not gone smoothly recently. Everton are now three Premier League games without a win and clearly suffering without the threat of the suspended Richarlison on the left wing. It is too early to say Everton's four-game winning streak at the start of the campaign was a false dawn, but defeat against Man Utd on Saturday would sow seeds of doubt.
Not that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team are in a good place right now. The United manager is at his lowest ebb following their shock 2-1 defeat at Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League in midweek, a game that included a truly extraordinary opening goal for Demba Ba that may have fatally undermined the United manager.
Things are beginning to unravel for Solskjaer, especially after Mauricio Pochettino's well-timed appearance on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football program put his name back in the forefront of people's minds.
Everton welcome back Lucas Digne to the side after his three-match suspension was reduced to one on appeal, while James Rodriguez is also expected to recover from a knee injury in time to make the starting line-up. Andre Gomes and Seamus Coleman face late fitness tests. Ben Godfrey misses out with a thigh injury, plus Mason Holgate and Jean-Philippe Gbamin remain out. Richarlison has one game left to serve on his suspension.
United have a much better bill of health, although Alex Telles tested positively for Covid-19 and may miss out. Phil Jones and Eric Bailly are still injured, but Victor Lindelof and Jesse Lingard could both be fit to feature.
Even prior to the 2-1 defeat in Turkey Man Utd were in trouble. Big wins at PSG and RB Leipzig were red herrings against a backdrop of some very poor form in the Premier League, and indeed United enter this fixture in the midst of their worst start to a season since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement. Their record of seven points from six games is as bad as David Moyes, and worse than Jose Mourinho's in his disastrous third year.
Everton enter in poor form, too. They have lost consecutive games, to Southampton and Newcastle United, and drew 2-2 with Liverpool the week before that; it has now been over a month since Everton were on the winning streak that put them to the top of the Premier League table.
THE GAME'S PATTERN
This match should suit Man Utd. Solskjaer's team is very good at sitting deeper and hitting teams on the counter-attack, but come completely unstuck when tasked with breaking down opponents who sit back against them. It plays into their hands, then, that Everton are a confident possession side under Ancelotti who will feel emboldened to take the game to the visitors.
For example, Everton's full-backs will fly forward, giving Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial the opportunity to break behind them on the counter-attack. Bruno Fernandes can also hope to get more room than usual, not least because without Andre Gomes Everton have been using the less reliable Gylfi Sigurdsson in midfield.
Then again, Everton have a sizable goal threat. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, on a mini goal drought after a blistering start, could return to form now that James is back on the right. The Toffees love to swing crosses into the box whenever possible, with Calvert-Lewin the target, and it is noteworthy that United's wingers don't offer enough defensive support for their own full-backs. Everton will get space to create chances in their favourite way.
All of which points to a highly entertaining game at Goodison Park, and yet another example of a chaotic end-to-end contest in this most unusual of Premier League campaigns.
The empty stadiums, fatigue from a congested fixture list, and the lack of time between games for managers to coach their players has led to high-scoring contests amid some badly organised tactics. That seems likely on Saturday, especially considering Ancelotti's expansive approach plays into the hands of the counter-attacking Solskjaer, and considering United are so low on confidence when they visit James Rodriguez and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
There will be goals at both ends, but Man Utd's speed on the break should be enough to win the contest and ease the pressure on Solskjaer – for now.