Everton will seek to continue their bid for an unlikely Champions League berth when they host struggling Aston Villa on Saturday.
David Moyes’ team sit fifth on the English Premier League table, just one point behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur and firmly in the hunt for a shot at UEFA’s elite club competition next term.
Few expected Everton to challenge for a top-four finish at the start of the campaign, with their budget and transfer expenditure dwarfed by the teams around them in the standings.
Nevertheless, the club from Goodison Park have outperformed the likes of perennial Champions League qualifiers Arsenal and local rivals Liverpool, who sit sixth and seventh respectively.
Everton downed fellow overachievers West Bromwich Albion 2-1 at home on Wednesday, allowing them to close the gap on Spurs, who were held 1-1 away to Norwich City.
Moyes will be confident of collecting maximum points from Aston Villa this weekend, with Paul Lambert’s men enduring another dire season at the wrong end of the table.
Villa are second from bottom, four points clear of last-placed Queens Park Rangers and level on points with Wigan Athletic and Reading.
The Midlands club are without a win in their last seven league matches, and have also exited the Capital One Cup and FA Cup at the hands of fourth-tier Bradford and Championship side Millwall respectively during a nightmare sequence of results.
Highly rated manager Lambert was plucked from Norwich City to orchestrate Villa’s revival following several seasons of struggle, but the Scot’s policy of fielding young players has thus far failed to bear dividends.
They went down 2-1 at home to fellow strugglers Newcastle United on Tuesday, and with matches against West Ham United, Arsenal and Manchester City coming up, it remains to be seen where Lambert intends to pick up much-needed points.
Injuries have not helped Villa’s cause – Gary Gardner (knee) is out for the trip to Merseyside, while fellow midfielders Chris Herd (knee), Marc Albrighton (foot) and Fabian Delph (ankle) are all in doubt.
Club captain Stiliyan Petrov has been sorely missed as he continues his recovery from acute leukaemia.
The outlook is better in the Everton treatment room, with fullback Tony Hibbert (calf) and midfielder Seamus Coleman (thigh) the only players unavailable for the visit of Villa.