Middlesbrough welcome Everton to the Riverside this weekend with all eyes on winning at least a point in an attempt to pull away from the edge of the relegation zone that sits so perilously close.
Goalkeeper Victor Valdes and the Boro defence have an impressive -8 goal difference in their favour, the best in the lower half of the Premier League table. They must be on their game to prevent a rampant Everton attack from running riot like they did in the 6-3 victory against Bournemouth last time out.
Valdes and his back four succumbed only to a Harry Kane penalty in the 1-0 defeat at Tottenham and their form is generally good. Eyes will therefore once again be on the action at the other end of the pitch, where questions remain as to whether the attacking players can increase their possession and turn rare opportunities into meaningful goals.
Despite this being such a big game against a team in decent form, there is plenty to be hopeful about for the Teessiders. Everton's defence is not infallible; they conceded three goals to a poor Bournemouth side in the last fixture. Also, in the last 10 minutes of the Spurs game, Boro enjoyed a good spell of attacking pressure. If they could just get the balance right between maintaining a composed defence and being more direct in their attacking play, success could be around the corner. The Everton game is the first of a key two-match run for Boro this month, the second being a six-pointer at fellow strugglers Crystal Palace.
Integral to this run is the return of influential midfielder Gaston Ramirez, who has been out for much of the last month with a knee injury. The man behind many of Boro's goals this season in one way or another will potentially slot straight into Aitor Karanka's starting XI against Everton. In fact, an entire midfield shake-up could be on the cards given that the middle of the park was the weakest zone in the Tottenham defeat. Adam Forshaw struggled to get a foothold in the game and Stewart Downing was weak on the left. Central midfielder Marten de Roon has been good on occasion, but his fluffed one-on-one showdown with Hugo Lloris at White Hart Lane pretty much summed up his performance on the day.
With the return of Ramirez, Karanka has many more options available to him, including switching Adama Traore more permanently to the left wing and possibly gifting a start to January signing Adlene Guedioura.
The squad have enjoyed a training camp in sunny Spain this week -- hopefully a change of scenery that has cleared heads and acted as a fresh start after a poor first month of 2017 and a distracting transfer window period. Karanka will hope for renewed focus from his players as they knuckle down for a tough three months in which no game is easy and survival must be attained at all costs. The coach believes that team spirit is key in lieu of expensive, flashy big-name players and that it was the best option to bed in January's new signings, including Rudy Gestede, and the returning Patrick Bamford.
Boro haven't had much rub of the green so far this season and a bit of luck against Everton could give them a huge boost, both in terms of morale and points. Keeping Romelu Lukaku quiet and playing with the confidence that a home side should -- plus the potential for an Everton underestimation of the Teessiders -- may just see a shock result on the cards.