Belfast Telegraph

Everton boss Ronald Koeman prepared for 'difficult' clash with Sunderland

Ronald Koeman hopes Everton can pick up where they left off when they face Premier League basement dwellers Sunderland on Saturday.

The Toffees go into the clash unbeaten in eight league games dating back to their derby loss against Liverpool on December 19.

They have won five of those matches and scored 19 goals, climbing to seventh in the table and within nine points of the Champions League places.

Elimination from the FA Cup left them with a free weekend, with Koeman taking the opportunity to whisk his players off for a training camp in Dubai.

Now it is back to the serious business and a match that he knows could trip Everton up if they are not fully focused.

"It's always difficult," said the Dutchman. "They fight against relegation. They also had a break. In the last couple of days I watched the Sunderland-Southampton game. The final score was 4-0 but the first 45 minutes Sunderland was the better team.

"We need to prepare ourselves. If you're not 100 per cent, if you take it too easy, if you are sloppy they will punish you for that. We are full of confidence but we have to show that in a good level on the pitch.

"The team and the people are happy. But in a good run you have to be prepared for what can happen. We know we are strong but it's football and we need to keep the momentum and that starts this weekend."

The match will mean a first return to Goodison Park for Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo, who both signed for Sunderland in January, as well as summer departure Steven Pienaar.

Koeman said: " It's always special for the players. They (Gibson and Oviedo) went to Sunderland to get more game time, that was a good choice by both players.

"They will get a respectful welcome. If they play they will do everything to win the game for Sunderland. We are friends after the game and before the game but during the 95 minutes everyone is involved in his own team."

Everton have top scorer Romelu Lukaku available after he missed the trip to Dubai to travel to Belgium for treatment on a calf problem.

James McCarthy and Kevin Mirallas are also fit after minor injuries kept them out of the goalless draw with Middlesbrough two weeks ago.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Muhamed Besic are close to returning to full training while Yannick Bolasie will next month undergo his second knee operation.

The winger had surgery on the meniscus in his right knee before Christmas after suffering a serious injury in Everton's draw with Manchester United on December 4.

He now needs an operation to repair the torn cruciate ligament and could be sidelined until next year.

This weekend is set to be a special occasion, meanwhile, for left-back Leighton Baines, who should make his 300th Premier League appearance for Everton.

The long-serving 32-year-old missed a chunk of the season with a hamstring injury but has returned to top form in the Toffees' good run.

Koeman said: "He's really important. I like him as a player, I like him as a person. He's really disciplined, involved in everything that happens at Everton.

"Maybe he's at his best level this season and I'm really happy. It's always a difficult position in the team. Not all the teams have that top quality. We are really lucky to have Leighton."

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