EVERTON’s Leighton Baines faces the first serious competition for his long-established left-back spot after manager Roberto Martinez admitted he has been reluctant to change a much-improved defence.
The England international sat out the FA Cup fourth-round tie at Carlisle because of a minor knock but has not been able to displace Bryan Oviedo, from the team after three consecutive 3-0 victories. The Costa Rican’s recent performances have been rewarded with a new three-and-a-half-year deal, which he signed on Friday.
Everton have produced 11 clean sheets in all competitions this season but the fact three of those came in the last three matches convinced Martinez there was no need to disrupt the back four despite Baines being fit again.
The 31-year-old has been an unused substitute for the last two games and while he will be hoping for a recall for the visit of West Brom, Martinez has offered no guarantees.
“Leighton had a really tough period with being out with an injury for such a long spell for the first time in his career,” said the Toffees boss, who has kept faith with Oviedo.
“He came back, got the rhythm slowly and he got in a very good amount of games in a short period of time but he had a knock against Carlisle and probably needed a bit of a breather.
“It was never a need to change the back five, it was the (same) back four plus ‘keeper who kept a clean sheet against Carlisle after a difficult period in our defensive duties.
“Leighton is a very experienced and important footballer for us and we will all get the benefit of having him fully fit and ready to go to fight for his place.
“He is now in a position where competition for places allows us to have a strong ending to the season.
“It just shows you the quality and competition we have in the squad.”
One player who has no doubts about his place in the starting XI is striker Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgium international has 20 goals already this season but he is targeting many more, starting against West Brom, the club where he spent the 2012-13 campaign on loan.
“I knew fairly quickly that I would hit 20 very fast. Now I am there, I just want to look forward now,” he told evertontv.
“A goal is a goal to me. A tap-in is as important as a penalty, I just want to find a way to score in every game.
“I get plenty of good deliveries and my team-mates can count on me to put the ball in the back of the net.
“We have a good chemistry in the team and that’s really good to have.”
Earlier in the week Lukaku said he could not believe Everton, with the squad they have, were only eighth in the table.
Martinez agreed with his striker but insists they are continuing to develop and Champions League qualification remains their target - even if it is out of reach this season.
“We don’t hide away from the fact that we’re building something to try to reach the top four places in the competition and that’s always been the aim: to get in to the Champions League,” added the manager.
“Romelu has shown with his performances this season that he’s matured immensely and I think he shares the feeling that we know we’ve been very close to getting many more points.
“Romelu, like any other young player with a big role in the team, accepts that challenge and accepts that we need to become better but it’s part of the journey that we’re all involved in.”