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Everton fans were not thrilled when the club appointed Rafael Benitez in the summer. The disappointment of losing Carlo Ancelotti to Real Madrid was one thing, but most supporters did not want Benitez to succeed the Italian. That was primarily due to his association with Liverpool, their arch-rivals, rather than doubts over his managerial acumen (although his safety-first style of play probably did not help either).
Benitez was always going to struggle to win the fans over. The season started reasonably well for the Toffees, who occupied fifth place in the Premier League table after a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at the start of October. Everton were not playing thrilling soccer, but they were well organized without the ball and carried a threat in the final third. Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, who signed for a combined £1.5m in the summer, contributed six goals between them in Everton’s first seven matches.
Since then, however, there has been very little to cheer. Everton have won just one of their last 12 top-flight games. That sole victory, a come-from-behind triumph over Arsenal towards the start of last month, was followed by a run which saw Everton take one point from the next nine available. After a 3-2 home defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion last time out, the fans made their frustrations known as boos rang out around Goodison Park after the final whistle.
If Everton are not careful, they could get sucked into a relegation battle. Benitez is right to point out that his side have been unfortunate with injuries, but there will be nowhere for the manager to go if results do not improve soon. His battle to win the fans over looks unwinnable at this point, though, and although Benitez is not to blame for all Everton’s problems, he is struggling to drive the team forward.
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Leicester are in a more comfortable position than their upcoming opponents, but they too have underachieved this season. After back-to-back fifth-place finishes, the Foxes were expected to mount another challenge for the top four this term. Instead, they have struggled to get going and are only just inside the top half 18 games in.
Their principal problem has been at the back. Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu have both missed significant chunks of the campaign, while Wesley Fofana has not made a single appearance due to injury. Jannik Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand were brought in from Southampton, but neither has lived up to expectations. Leicester have conceded 33 goals, with only Watford, Leeds United, Norwich City, and Newcastle United possessing leakier backlines.
The hope for Brendan Rodgers is that, as players like Evans, Fofana, and James Justin return to fitness, Leicester will tighten up in defense. But even if they do, a top-four finish is surely already beyond them. The Foxes are 10 points adrift of the Champions League qualification places. While they have two games in hand on some of the teams above them, it is hard to see Rodgers’ side climbing above each of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, and Manchester United.
Leicester’s forward line has also been affected by injuries, with Jamie Vardy and Patson Daka sidelined. Kelechi Iheanacho is at the Africa Cup of Nations, so Rodgers will have to develop a novel solution on Tuesday.
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Benitez’s name has only been sung once at Goodison Park this season: when Liverpool fans belted it out in their 4-1 thrashing of their neighbors on December 1. Everton’s home ground can create quite the din when it gets going, but in recent weeks the home crowd has been liable to get on the team’s back. If Leicester takes the lead on Tuesday, the mood could turn toxic.
Soccer crowds are active participants in the game that unfolds in front of them. To witness the effect of fans, note how away wins became more common when matches were held behind closed doors last term. For a match like this, it is only right to consider how the atmosphere could affect the match itself.
Even with Vardy, Daka, and Iheanacho missing, Leicester will carry an attacking threat. James Maddison is in fantastic form, Harvey Barnes’ direct running will cause Everton problems, and Ayoze Perez, who could start up top, is a wily operator. The Toffees have kept just one clean sheet since September – fewer even than last-placed Norwich.
As long as Leicester can cut out the defensive errors – and that is far from a given – they should have enough quality to emerge victorious on Tuesday. If they do, Benitez will fear for his future as Everton manager.
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|Everton vs Leicester City Information
|Everton vs Leicester City
|Goodison Park, Liverpool, England
|Tuesday, 11 January 2022, 15.30 PM EST
|How to watch
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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