While Everton’s weary troops laboured through much of the winter and subsequently saw their hopes of a top four spot fade into the distance, the return to fitness of Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas suggests there are some green shoots of recovery as we head into the spring.
Much has been made this season about the impact of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar down the Everton left and how their combination leads directly to so many of the Toffees’ goals.
It can’t be denied that the duo have had fine seasons, particularly Baines, whose lung-busting runs up and down the touchline, tantalisingly dangerous crosses and fearsome long range strikes have rightly led to pundits and fans alike labeling him one of – if not the – best left-back in the country.
Pienaar meanwhile is a player who fits perfectly into the Goodison surroundings. Out of place and out of form at Tottenham, his almost telepathic understanding with Baines gives the Blues a profitable avenue of attack.
But Everton’s “Bainaar’ combination is nothing new, even if the pundits have only picked up in it this season. Teams have sought to double up on the royal blue duo for a while and it is to their credit that they continue to carve out opportunities.
But what has also helped Baines and Pienaar this season is the fact that an equally impressive twin threat is operating down the opposite flank.
The arrival of Kevin Mirallas and the development of Seamus Coleman allows the blues to stretch the play across the width of the pitch – if one avenue is closed then they can switch play quickly across to the other side (unlike when Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert plodded down that wing – see FA Cup final 2009).
This makes defending Everton attacks a much tougher prospect, especially when you consider they also have the aerial option of Marouane Fellaini through the middle.
Unfortunately for Everton, both Mirallas and Coleman have had their injury worries this season, which is a pity as when they do play together they look a much better side.
In the 11 league games Mirallas and Coleman have started together, Everton have won six and drawn five (though two of those games – Spurs and Sunderland – did see Mirallas withdraw early due to injury) scoring 23 goals in the process.
Mirallas’ game we know all about already. Quick, pacey, direct and skillful, he is the one player in the Everton team capable of that bit of magic and as such he is vital to the team’s chances of a strong finish to the campaign, especially with Nikica Jelavic’s continued struggles in front of goal.
It is the development of Coleman though that is most pleasing. His attacking instincts often saw him pushed forward to right wing in his early days, where he was never truly comfortable. Yet when he played at right back, his defensive naivety was often exposed.
However, this season he has looked much more composed at the back, but crucially he has also honed his attacking game. No longer does he just blindly put his head down and run (which was still successful on occasion) but he is much more aware of those around him.
Last Saturday against Reading was a case in point, his surging run and cross teeing up Fellaini for the crucial opening goal.
In the second half, most of Everton’s attacking play came down the right-hand side, with Coleman finding more and more space as the game wore on.
Steven Pienaar’s second goal came from that flank, having switched with the versatile Mirallas to further bamboozle the Royals defenders, before the duo combined to score the match-sealing third goal.
Baines, meanwhile, had one of his quietest games offensively, which considering he creates most of Everton’s opportunities, is a encouraging sign that others are now ready to share the burden.
Granted, Everton’s past two wins have come against a League One side and a team second bottom in the Premier League, but after plunging the depths at Carrow Road, the past week has at least shown some tangible progress.
If the pair can stay fit between now and May then Everton will always create opportunities. And given positive results breeds confidence, others may just follow their lead, meaning a spirited end to the season may be on the cards after all.