Everton eye strong finish against Swansea after locking up seventh place

Defeat at home to Chelsea last time out demonstrated the gap between the two teams that Everton are attempting to narrow. This season marks the start of that process, although 3-0 and 5-0 defeats in games against the champions-elect highlight the work still to do.

Additional strength in reserve underlined the contrast between two teams at varying stages in their development. Chelsea turned to Cesc Fabregas and Willian while the home side called on 33-year-old Arouna Kone, who is almost nine months without a goal and yet to start a single game in any competition this season.

Yet in the context of a first home season under new management, the Chelsea loss marked only a second home defeat for a team with 12 wins in 17 home games. Manager Ronald Koeman has seen his team transform both the atmosphere and belief within Goodison Park, returning the stadium to its previous state as an imposing place for visiting teams.

In terms of league position as a barometer of progress in Koeman's first campaign, seventh place appears inevitable after an unfortunate stumble in recent weeks that has seen Everton win just two of their last six matches. The Blues have not scored in their last two games -- a third blank at Swansea on Saturday would be the first time since a four-game drought in April 2006.

Midseason resurgence sparked by an FA Cup loss at home to Leicester in January has ultimately run out of steam, although results in the latest round of league fixtures confirmed Europa League football as a product of Koeman's first season. Southampton and West Brom also dropping points at home ensures none of the teams below Everton can garner enough points to overtake them in the remaining matches.

As a mark of the rebuild faced upon sacking Roberto Martinez with one game to spare in 2015-16, this season represents a promising first step in a process that was always going to take more than a few seasons to be fully realised. With European football secured and seventh place confirmed, barring the most improbable collapse from any of the three teams directly above them in the table, attentions are inevitably turning toward next season.

When addressing his own comments about his dream of one day managing Barcelona, Koeman spoke of this "big project," his happiness at Everton and looking forward to next season. Koeman wants to take this club into the Champions League, and that process is ongoing. The task of reshaping the squad for the extra matches and early start brought about by Europa League involvement is already in motion.

New, long-term contracts for Tom Davies and Dominic Calvert-Lewin within the last month are reward for their emergence this season, while Koeman confirmed in his Thursday news conference that Kone would leave the club when his contract expires this summer. A £6 million signing by Martinez, the Ivorian striker has suffered with injuries, though rarely looked capable of making the kind of impact expected from a player costing the same amount of money as Leighton Baines. Kone failed to start a league game in his first season and is on track for the same fate in his fourth and final season.

With the first signs of future-planning taking shape, the three remaining matches perhaps provide Koeman with a chance to assess those on the fringes of his squad. Given recent unconvincing outings from others in the attack-minded roles behind Romelu Lukaku, an underused Ademola Lookman is one such option to consider for increased minutes in these closing weeks.

On paper, the weekend trip to the Liberty Stadium appears a typical end-of-season clash between a team fighting relegation and potentially distracted visitors seemingly eyeing next season. But successive league games without a goal or win is something for Everton to put right on Saturday, as is the improved Swansea record in recent meetings. Everton went unbeaten in their first 20 games against their Welsh opponents, but their weekend hosts are unbeaten in five league encounters and the last six in all competitions.

Everton can also build toward next season by finishing strongly on the road. Koeman has already called on his players to close the gap between home and away form and improve on the disappointing display at West Ham in their last away outing, a result that leaves the Toffees winless in six away games. A seventh away match without a win would be the first time since an unwanted 10-match sequence in 2013.

While it is understandable for all concerned to cast an eye toward next season, it is important to finish strongly and maintain momentum into the summer. Koeman will not settle for players donning their proverbial flip-flops with three matches still to play, especially with his team winless on the road since a 1-0 win at Crystal Palace in January.