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Stubbs' Under-21s Preview

Development squad return to action at Blackburn on Monday.

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Everton Under-21s are preparing to start the second half of their season – and Monday’s match against Blackburn Rovers can’t come quickly enough for coach Alan Stubbs.

A fourth-place finish during the first half of the season means that the development squad will play in qualification Group One in the second stage of the campaign, with a trip to Leigh Sports Village the first fixture on the schedule.

Teams were divided into three new groups based on final league standings before Christmas, with Everton’s position meaning that they will play in the middle tier.

And after a five-week break from competitive match action, Stubbs is eagerly anticipating Monday’s meeting.

“I can’t wait to get going again,” the former Blues defender told evertontv.

“Unfortunately we missed out being in the Elite Group by a point so we find ourselves in the second group with a different choice of fixtures. We’ll see what it brings.”

Speaking before Christmas, Stubbs felt that a lack of consistency cost his players a place in the Elite Group, particularly at the very start of the campaign.

The Under-21s lost three of their opening four fixtures and although they finished the first half of the season with a flourish, a top-three position was just beyond their reach.

But despite playing their football in the middle tier, the Blues still have a chance of winning the overall competition.

Indeed, should they finish in top position in Group One they will qualify for the end-of-season play-offs where they will host the champions of Group Two.

The winners of that tie will then proceed to the semi-final stage where they will be joined by the top three teams in the Elite Group.

With plenty to play for over the next four months, Stubbs is challenging his players to continue the form which saw them beat Norwich City and Bolton Wanderers in their final two matches of 2012.

“I think the biggest thing we are looking for is a level of improvement,” he added.

“We have got a small group and its going to be very challenging for them. Sometimes because of that you get the odd one or two that might surprise you. We have to do the best with what we have got.

“It will be a challenge for some of the younger ones who will get thrown in. But sometimes when you throw them in at the deep end they have a habit of surprising you and that’s what we will be looking for in the second part of the season.”

Everton and Blackburn have already locked horns twice this season – the Blues won 1-0 away from home in August with Rovers gaining revenge at Finch Farm in November when they registered a 2-1 victory.

The Under-21s will also play Aston Villa, Chelsea, Fulham, Middlesbrough and Sunderland home and away as part of the round robin league format.

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