Romelu Lukaku’s return to fitness has given Everton extra reason for optimism as they prepare to welcome their former manager David Moyes back to Goodison Park in the Premier League on Saturday.
Lukaku was outstanding in Everton’s last home match, scoring four times in a 6-3 victory over Bournemouth at the start of February, but missed his club’s recent five-day warm-weather training camp in Dubai to have treatment on a calf problem.
Moyes, now in charge at Sunderland, will be disappointed to learn that the Belgium striker has been passed fit, and is ready to add to the total of 17 goals that makes him Everton’s top scorer this season.
The break in Dubai was a result of Everton having no game for a fortnight after their most recent fixture, a goalless draw at Middlesbrough, and appears to have given Ronald Koeman’s players a chance to shake off their aches and strains.
In addition to Lukaku, midfielder James McCarthy is ready to return from a hamstring injury, and winger Kevin Mirallas has recovered from a groin problem.
Spirits are good too, with a poor run of results in the lead-up to Christmas now forgotten, thanks to a sequence of eight league matches unbeaten, during which Everton have gathered 18 points and kept five clean sheets.
As a result, Everton are firmly ensconced in seventh place, well behind the teams above them, but with a significant gap to most of the teams below them as well.
With no cups to play for, and European qualification a distant shot at present, the Toffees are more or less free to play without pressure. Koeman, though, will not stand for his players easing up.
“The best way to be successful is game by game,” the Everton manager said. “We like to win and we need to play on a good level. We are not a team who will give a lot of space away.”
– Unhappy return –
The last time Moyes came to Goodison Park as a visiting manager, he was sacked just two days later.
That was following a 2-0 defeat with Manchester United in April 2014, nine months after the Scot ended his 11-year spell as Everton’s manager for an ill-fated stint at Old Trafford.
This time, he returns with a Sunderland team bottom of the table and needing a lift after losing 4-0 at home to Southampton in their last league fixture a fortnight ago.
But Jan Kirchhoff has lifted some of gloom over the Stadium of Light by rejoining the first-team squad after missing out on their five-day break in New York.
The German midfielder, a key figure in last season’s narrow escape from relegation, has been out for eight weeks because of a knee injury.
But he is likely to be involved at Goodison as Moyes tries to compensate for the absence of Jack Rodwell, who began his career at Everton, and Lee Cattermole.
Kirchhoff trained with the club’s Under-23s last week while his team-mates were in the United States.
“It was better for my personal development if I stayed here and trained,” he said.
While Rodwell misses out on a return to Merseyside, former Everton players Bryan Oviedo, Darron Gibson and Joleon Lescott will be in the Sunderland squad.
Sunderland have won only once since Boxing Day — a 4-0 triumph at fellow-strugglers Crystal Palace — and have lost four of their last six games.
Sadness also surrounds the match after news that the family of Bradley Lowery, a five-year-old suffering from terminal cancer, have been told he has a new tumour.
Bradley brought the two teams together when he was Sunderland’s mascot for their home game against Everton in September.
Everton later donated £200,000 ($251,000, 297,000 euros) towards Bradley’s treatment and he was also their mascot for a match against Manchester City in January, when he was carried on to the Goodison Park pitch by Lukaku.