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Tim Howard says John Stones and Antolin Alcaraz can again show this weekend that Everton have the strength in depth to cope with the loss of defensive linchpins Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin.

The Blues are without their first-choice centre-half pairing for the trip to Southampton after Distin joined Jagielka on the treatment table with his own hamstring complaint.

Stones, 19, has impressed in his first full season at Goodison Park and, alongside Distin, has started in the last 10 games since the Blues skipper sustained his injury setback.

Alcaraz, 31, stepped off the bench to fill the void when the French defender was forced out of the Manchester United victory at half-time.

The duo are set to partner each other at St Mary’s - just as they did for a couple games earlier this season.

The Stones-Alcaraz combination helped Everton earn a point at Stoke City on New Year’s Day and kept Queens Park Rangers at bay when the Toffees coasted into the fourth round of the FA Cup in early January.

And Howard said: “Those two have been our rocks. They were the defensive unit but Stonesy has come in and done brilliantly.

“I don’t think anyone can deny how well he has played. He has fitted right in like a glove. He is a natural.

“And, of course, with Antolin, his experience speaks volumes. He comes right into a big match, reads the game really well and is so confident and composed on the ball.

“He allows my comfort level to be raised because I can give him a ball and I know he is going to make the right decisions. That’s the good thing - the trust level that we all have."

This weekend’s opponents Southampton are without a victory in their last three matches but Howard appreciates the way that Argentine coach Mauricio Pochettino has turned the Saints into a top-half force this season.

He continued: "They play a really good brand of football and they’ve got some exciting players, particularly up the front of the park, so we’ll have to be bang on form.

"But it’s good what’s going on there. They seem to have a really good set of players and a fantastic coach who believes in those players and vice-versa.

"It's exciting times for them and hopefully they don’t play so well at the weekend. But it does seem to be a good club with a lot of top young talent."

Live commentary of Everton's clash with Southampton will be available here from around 12.40pm on Saturday afternoon.

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