Michael Keane insists Everton have two high-stakes games remaining this season with players battling to be included in Carlo Ancelotti’s long-term plans.
Centre-back Keane has played every minute of Everton’s matches since the restart and been one of his team’s standout performers.
The 27-year-old is the senior man in the middle of defence and, following injury to Mason Holgate, has latterly formed a partnership with teenage rookie Jarrad Branthwaite – a “top, top young player”, in Keane’s view.
Keane is relishing the responsibility of a leadership role at the back.
And he is imploring his teammates to be mentally and physically tuned in for games against Sheffield United and Bournemouth, after a sequence of results which left Everton in 11th and out of the running for European football.
“It is about winning both games, and, to be honest, showing the manager you are good enough to be here next year,” said Keane.
“We don’t want to be in this position next year.
“We want to be up the table, pushing for Europe, the Champions League.
“If you’re not playing well enough at the minute, the manager might replace you.
“That has to be what everyone is fighting for.
“We want to win the games and climb the table.
“We can’t reach Europe and won’t go down but we want to finish as high as possible for our pride.
“We have two tough games, Sheffield United are fighting for Europe and Bournemouth will be fighting for their lives, like Aston Villa were on Thursday.
“We have to be mentally and physically ready and try to get two wins.”
Everton tackle Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Monday, with Bournemouth coming to Goodison Park six days later for the final game of 2019/20.
Manager Ancelotti’s team were indebted to a late Theo Walcott equaliser against Villa for preserving their unbeaten Premier League home run, which now stands at 11 games.
Everton’s previous Goodison game, against Southampton, also finished 1-1, with defeats away against Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves flattening hopes of Europa League qualification, which grew after a productive return from the coronavirus shutdown.
The Blues have nonetheless been organised and resilient in defence.
In seven games following the restart they’ve recorded two clean sheets and only once, in the 3-0 loss at Wolves, conceded more than one goal.
Everton have also had to cope with injury setbacks for Holgate and Yerry Mina, with 18-year-old Branthwaite impressing from the bench against both Wolves and Villa.
“I thought he was brilliant [after replacing Holgate in the 16th minute against Villa] but I wasn’t surprised,” said Keane.
“He has shown in training since we came back he is a top, top young player.
“He had a bit of experience at Wolves, which will have helped him on Thursday.
“I am starting to feel old now, playing with Mason and Jarrad!
“I try to pass my experience to them, try to be a leader, try to be the loud one and help them get through it.
“I thought we [Keane and Branthwaite] defended well as a pair.
“He is a great lad, he works hard and he is humble.
“I am sure he has a great career ahead of him.”
For all of Everton’s resistance at one end of the field, they have toiled to unpick defences over the past few weeks.
Ancelotti insisted more “efficiency” in the final third would have converted one point into three against Villa.
Keane detected some reasons for optimism in that game but concedes there is scope for greater purpose in Everton’s attacking play.
He added: “We played well in the last 15 to 20 minutes against Villa.
“Before then, we played well until we reached the final third.
"We are quite good at getting up the pitch but are not creating chances frequently enough and not sustaining pressure on teams for long enough.
“The spirit was much better than against Wolves and I am sure the manager was happy with the way we responded to going one down.
“There were a few positives to take but it is disappointing not to win your home games.
“We see the quality of the lads in training every day but something is not clicking at the minute.
“Believe me, we are working on it, trying to come up with a solution.
“It was a bit better [against Villa], we got in some pockets, in some good positions.
“But it was the final pass, or decision making, which let us down.
“It is something we will continue trying to improve.”