Everton provide tough start to Norwich City’s ‘super seven’ Premier League run-in
Norwich City will be looking to spring a surprise or two as they enter the home straight in their Premier League programme – kicking off with an Easter weekend double date against two of the FA Cup semi-finalists.
After a moderate March proved to be arguably the least entertaining month of the campaign, and yielded just four points from five matches, the Canaries are poised for a potentially exciting run-in where nearly every game could have a bearing on issues at the top and bottom of the table.
First of the super seven that wrap up City's top-flight schedule are Everton, who visit Carrow Road tomorrow (3pm), looking to extend an impressive run that has brought them just two defeats in 15 matches in all competitions and a Wembley semi-final showdown with big rivals Liverpool.
The Canaries then visit fourth-placed Tottenham on Monday (3pm), before the last five matches pit them against title challengers Manchester City, relegation-threatened Blackburn, Carling Cup winners Liverpool, Champions League qualifying hopefuls Arsenal and finally Aston Villa, who are currently too close for comfort to the bottom three and could yet need points when they come to Norwich.
It is a tough schedule and with his own team's survival not yet guaranteed – two clubs went down last season with City's current total of 39 points – manager Paul Lambert knows this is no time to relax.
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'As a manager you always strive to be the best you can and I don't want to come up and down in one season,' he said.
'We're not safe yet, mathematically anyway, but we have given ourselves a right good chance to stay in the league.
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'I always had a great belief in the team that they could win more games than not and I think we've done fantastically well.
'We've had a fantastic time, we really have. We'll try to finish the job but we've put ourselves in a good position.'
City drew 1-1 at Goodison Park in December when Leon Osman's late equaliser cancelled out skipper Grant Holt's superbly-taken first-half goal, but Everton won the previous five competitive meetings between the two clubs.
Top scorer Holt will be available again after suspension forced him to miss the 2-1 defeat at Fulham last Saturday, while defender Ryan Bennett staked his claim for a home debut with his performance at Craven Cottage.
Lambert was today expected to give an update on the fitness of winger Anthony Pilkington, who has missed two matches with a hamstring injury but could be back in contention.
Defenders Daniel Ayala and Marc Tierney failed to complete the reserve game against Sunderland at Colney on Tuesday after suffering ankle and thigh problems, respectively, but goalkeeper Declan Rudd came safely through 45 minutes of action on his return from a foot operation.
David Moyes' Everton are currently seventh in the table, matching their final position last season, and though their chances of booking a Europa League spot through their league position are remote, they will be in confident mood and keen to keep their momentum going ahead of their Wembley date.
Midfielder Marouane Fellaini stressed the importance of maintaining their winning run. He said: 'Norwich City have done well this season. They got a 1-1 draw against us at Goodison and we'll go there to try and win for confidence and to give us momentum going ahead to the semi-final. It's important we keep our run going. We want to still be doing well going to Wembley.'
Royston Drenthe, who has missed Everton's last three games after being given compassionate leave, returned to training this week and could come back into first team contention.
Moyes, meanwhile, has praised the form of Leighton Baines, insisting the England left-back is now producing the best form of his career.
'Baines is at a level which is right at the top,' said Moyes. 'I can seem him every day, actually see his body language, the way he is going about the place. He's acting, behaving like a top player with his performances at the moment. He's got confidence but not over-confidence where he is arrogant in any way and is still diligent about all the jobs he has to do as part of being a full-back.
'Baines has the ability to do some really good things. He's an excellent player who has been progressing over the last few years. I'm sure everyone has seen that.'