Alex Iwobi says Everton are bubbling with belief ahead of a potentially season-defining flurry of games against four Premier League big hitters – and the forward is feeling “sharp, confident and excited” before his first return to Arsenal on Sunday.
Iwobi ended a 17-year association with the Gunners when he joined Everton back in August and wants to show his old employers “what they are missing” this weekend.
He was limited to only 11 minutes in the reverse fixture after hurting his hamstring when the sides drew 0-0 on the December day Carlo Ancelotti was appointed Everton manager.
Iwobi made his comeback from injury in his team’s most recent away game, the 3-2 win at Watford earlier this month, and is itching to be involved from the start this weekend.
If Ancelotti adopts his usual wait-and-see approach to announcing his line-up, however, the 23-year-old will discover only hours before kick-off if he’ll begin a game for the second time since his Italian boss’s arrival.
Following the trip to Arsenal, Everton play Manchester United and Liverpool at home either side of an away game against Chelsea.
“They are all big matches and we spoke this week and said these are the games which will decide where we finish,” Iwobi told evertonfc.com.
“We have ambitions to be in Europe next year and if we take points from these sides we have a good chance.
“We believe we can do that and we have to show to the Premier League we can compete against the best teams.
“Once you’ve done it, it gives you the confidence to go and do it consistently and we’ve already had some good results against sides towards the top.
“We knew from the start of the season we had excellent individual players but we had to show it as a team.
“We feel we are able to do that now.
“We have this belief that no matter who we are playing we can get points.
“We are motivated and confident going into every game.
“Reaching Europe is in our minds but it does not happen overnight, you have to focus on every game and right now we are making sure we are sharp and ready for Arsenal.”
Iwobi, who started training with Arsenal aged six and signed for the Londoners three years later, has made 17 Premier League appearances this season, starting 12 times.
He played 100 matches in the competition for the Gunners and scored his first top-flight goal against Everton at Goodison Park.
And the Nigeria international has been pulling out all the stops on the USM Finch Farm training field in a bid to convince Ancelotti to give him the opportunity to make a mark on the fixture wearing Everton blue.
“Arsenal is where I grew up and I want to show them what they produced was good and what they are missing,” said Iwobi.
“I am feeling very sharp, very good in myself and confident: excited and always wanting to get on the ball.
“I would like to go and prove a point – but I want to prove a point whoever I am playing.
“There won’t be any nerves or extra motivation. I am motivated for every game and always excited and ready to go."
He continued: “We usually find out who is playing on the day.
“Sometimes there is a hint but we know officially before leaving for the ground.
“Usually, with set piece work, you would know the team.
“But the manager mixes and matches, so we don’t know who will start.
“And it means everybody is ready to play if anything happens (Tom Davies replacing Bernard following a pre-match injury to the Brazilian at Manchester City on New Year's Day, for example).
“I think it is good because training is naturally more intense. Everyone gives 100 per cent to get that starting position.
“It brings out the best in everyone and prevents anyone being down if they find out early they’re not playing.
“Everyone is trying to prove they should be starting right until the final session.”
Iwobi concedes this month’s winter break arrived at a “weird time for me”, given he was just rediscovering his match legs following six weeks out of action.
He nonetheless insists it was a “positive thing” for his side following a sequence of 15 games in the 70 days between 1 December and the 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace on 8 February.
And since returning to training Iwobi has continued feeding his renewed appetite for the defensive element of his game.
“You attack and defend as a team and I have to be unselfish,” said Iwobi.
“You do everything for the team.
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“Previously, I did not enjoy that side of it.
"But you see defenders make a last-minute tackle and celebrate like it is a goal.
“I am getting that sensation when I track back and make a tackle or interception.
“It is something I need to work on more – but I feel good, ready to compete at 100 per cent and play 90 minutes.”
He added: “Only time will tell how I’ll feel going back to the Emirates.
“When I get off the coach and we go inside, turning right to the away changing room instead of going left might feel weird.
“But I will get used to it and be focussed on what we have to do.”