The Toffees' head into their quarter-final tie in excellent form. Having beaten Chelsea and Leicester in succession without conceding, they entertained crisis club Arsenal at the weekend, and duly won 2-1 courtesy of a Rob Holding own-goal and a Yerry Mina header from close range. They now welcome a Manchester United side to Goodison, who have typically been excellent on their travels this season, with the Red Devils taking maximum points away from home in the Premier League.
Carlo Ancelotti spoke about the encounter, the latest injury news for the Blues' ahead of the game, and their chances of progression in the competition.
- James and Gbamin still unavailable
Ancelotti has established Everton fans’ worst fears by announcing that star man James Rodriguez continues to suffer from a calf injury and is therefore unavailable for selection; making it four games on the bounce that the Toffees have been unable to pick the Colombian.
In a game that is pivotal to Everton’s season, they will instead be forced to play Alex Iwobi in his place; however, Ancelotti insists that his side will cope just fine, given the performances they have put in over the last couple of weeks. “We are not concerned. We are sad because James is an important player for us but if he is not able to play, not ready, we cannot push him to come back. We have to wait. He is working individually but he has to work with the team before he can return”, Ancelotti said. "The season finishes in May. Not only for James, for all the players, they need to have a proper plan to avoid problems in the future, and maybe when the season is more important than now. "I think, at least, he can be available for the next game, or for the game after. We have games every three days.”
Ancelotti, however, did give Evertonians a positive piece of injury news, by quashing the rumours that forgotten man Jean-Phillipe Gbamin has suffered yet another injury, claiming it is nothing but an ‘internet hoax’. Gbamin has only made two appearances for Everton since joining from Bundesliga side Mainz for £25m in August 2019, following a series of injuries – the latest one being a ruptured achilles. Speaking on the Ivorian, Ancelotti said: “We are taking our time with Gbamin, and there has not been an injury setback. "We want to do a proper entry for him with the squad so we are taking our time because he has had a lot of injuries. We have to take care and be careful with him."
- Lucas Digne close to signing new contract
Despite missing the best part of a month already with an injury picked up at Fulham, with another month of rehabilitation to go and having a contract running until the summer of 2023, Lucas Digne is expected to sign a new long-term contract at Goodison Park in order to fend off interest from Europe’s elite clubs such as Manchester City, who have been linked with the Frenchman for the forthcoming January transfer window. However, some cryptic tweeting from Digne and a reassurance from Carlo have cooled Everton fans’ frustrations on the matter.
“The situation is that we are pleased to try and renew the contract of Digne. He is an important player for us for the present and the future”, Ancelotti claimed. “It will not be a problem to renew the contract of Digne because he is happy with us and we are happy with him.”
- What is more important – Cup or Top 4?
In one of the most unwanted hoodoos for a club the size of Everton’s stature, the Toffees will now have gone twenty-six years without a trophy when the bells chime midnight on New Year’s eve. Having endured a generation of drudgery throughout, a win on Wednesday night will mark their first semi-final since an FA Cup expedition in 2016, where they were incidentally beaten by United.
However, fielding a strong side may come at the expense of a key time to rest due to the heavy winter schedule that the Premier League entails; and Ancelotti believes it is all about finding the correct balance.
“I do not know what is best, top four or a trophy. Tomorrow is a very important game, it is the quarter-final of a competition that Everton have never won, against a very tough opponent. It is a great opportunity. Playing at Goodison can be an advantage because of our support, even with just 2,000 fans. We give a lot of importance to this competition. Everton have never won it before. We are two games from the final so it would be fantastic to play a final if possible. We are going to put out our strongest team.”
- United's strengths, stopping Bruno Fernandes
United, who despite having started the season slowly and dropping out of the Champions League, suddenly find themselves third in the Premier League – with a game in hand to take them into second place. They’ve had many shining stars along the way; Scott McTominay has shone alongside the ever improving Marcus Rashford and the form-finding Anthony Martial – but there is one man from Portugal who has stolen the limelight.
Carlo Ancelotti is well aware of Bruno Fernandes’ exploits this season, and will be hoping his clean-sheet wielding defenders will be able to keep him at bay. “United are a team that in general have done very well. Going out in Europe might have affected them but they are doing well in the Premier League and have players of top, top quality”, Ancelotti admitted. “I learned that if you leave space to Bruno Fernandes then you are dead – he is a fantastic player and the key point to United and we need to take care of this.”
- COVID-19, and the winter fixture pile-up
In a time when the big European leagues go into hibernation, the Premier League does the exact opposite and goes full steam ahead in terms of fixtures. Ancelotti will have already experienced this last season and in his reign with Chelsea; however, he believes his squad has what it takes to get through the treacherous festive season. “It is difficult in this moment, it is a busy period and players are tired but I think we have a squad to manage this.”
And to make matters worse in this seasons’ footballing calendar, there is the added threat of the COVID-19 pandemic – currently enduring a second wave, and also posing the potential of players being ruled out if they test positive. However, Ancelotti was full of praise for the governing bodies management of their protocol, and insists his players will play even if they have to be tested twice a week. “I think the protocol that the Premier League and Government put in place to restart the season was really good. If they decide to be tested two times a week, we have to do without any problem or doubt. The protocol is working because we are able to play games.”