Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti admits keeping playmaker James Rodriguez fully fit for the rest of the season will play a huge part in their quest for European football.
The Colombia international is set to start at home to Crystal Palace on Monday after spending six weeks out with a calf injury which has troubled him since before Christmas.
Everton have 10 matches left to secure Ancelotti’s primary aim of a European spot but being just five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea with a game in hand offers the outside chance of making the Champions League for only the second time in the club’s history.
Just three wins and six goals in their last eight league fixtures – of which Rodriguez featured in just one, the home defeat by Fulham on February 14 – has seen their progress stall but Ancelotti hopes his fully recovered playmaker can spark an end-of-season charge.
“James is well and in good condition, he trained well in this break and he is motivated. He is going to put more quality into our attacking play,” said the Italian.
“I think he did well when his condition was good but he played a lot of games at the beginning and started to have problems and lost his condition a little bit and was not 100 per cent.
“His season is good until now: top at the beginning with more difficulty in the middle and, at the end, the fact he has recovered well and properly means he is going to do his best.
“I don’t have to tell him how to improve because his quality is top and it is important to keep him in good condition so we have to take care of him in training, doing specific exercises like he did in this break, to keep him in this condition.”
Everton boss Ancelotti has also challenged Michael Keane to use his England omission as motivation for the remainder of the season.
The centre-back has been one of Everton’s best performers this season but did not do enough to convince Gareth Southgate to put him in the squad for the recent World Cup qualifiers.
However, Ancelotti said that snub and the desire to play at Euro 2020 can benefit the player and the club.
“I spoke with him. He trained really well, was focused, and I said to him there would still be an opportunity,” he said.
“The fact you are not in the squad means you have to improve your quality to be more focused in the last 10 games because at the end you want to be in the squad when Euro 2020 comes.
“Gareth Southgate is focused on games and if Michael does his best he will be in the squad.”