Stones worthy of a trip to Brazil
Everton face Southampton on Saturday in part one of a season defining trilogy -- in terms of quality, let's hope this run-in is more Godfather I and II than III -- set to determine whether the Blues' overdue return to European competition will be the Europa League or the Champions League.
Second favourites to Arsenal, with the Gunners a point ahead and boasting the easier fixtures, and already without the in-form Kevin Mirallas, Everton must also make do without Sylvain Distin for this match (and maybe longer).
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Combine this with the news that Phil Jagielka is not expected back until the Manchester City match, the pressure is on John Stones and the returning Antolin Alcaraz to form a partnership in their absence.
Alcaraz, in particular, is a worry. Fitness concerns are something of a lingering issue for the Paraguayan defender. Injury permitting, though, Alcaraz remains a fine defender, strong in the air and an excellent distributor of the ball.
Alongside him, and far less of a concern, is Stones, the youngest member of this central defensive quartet by almost twelve years, who has excelled since his introduction into the first-team picture under manager Roberto Martinez.
Time is the only constraint preventing Stones from being a more viable candidate for the club's young player of the season award, although recent form leaves Stones pressing for a spot on the World Cup plane to Brazil.
Teammate Jagielka and Chelsea's Gary Cahill are certainties for the World Cup, but there is no reason why Stones cannot take one of the remaining places, especially as others are far from convincing at present.
Those in attendance at Goodison Park on Sunday witnessed the current failings of Manchester United pair Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, with Jones at fault for the first goal. Both look short of confidence in a team drifting towards its worst league finish in nearly 25 years.
Similar problems taint other candidates as there is no true standout. Selecting players such as Joleon Lescott would only serve to confirm the longstanding view of many that England select on reputation rather than form. Hull's Curtis Davies and Cardiff's Steven Caulker possess stronger claims than the Manchester City defender.
Outside of current form -- although that is a strong enough reason to book a seat on the plane for Everton's number 26 -- Stones also offers a differing approach. There is no fear in possession or tendency to dispatch the ball to all corners of the ground; Stones is comfortable on the ball
Regularly striding out of defence with the ball at his feet, kick-starting attacks, the quick pass setting Seamus Coleman on another foray forward is becoming a recurring theme as the season progresses.
The win at Fulham at the end of March sticks in the mind. Having been pegged back by the home side, it was Stones bringing the ball out from the back, driving Everton forward, offering a compelling impression of a seasoned midfielder in his pomp. On that evidence, few would guess he was a central defender with less than 25 Premier League appearances to his name.
Still, as impressive as Stones is on the front foot, it is his defending that continues to enhance his reputation. Much like Alcaraz, his defensive partner for this weekend, Stones seems to play the game at a pace barely above walking. The need for sprinting is negated by the appearance of a player who always has time.
Fairly quick, though not rapid by any stretch, Stones counters any lack of pace through an excellent tackling ability. The sight of Stones timing a sliding tackle to perfection has become a pleasing, frequent occurrence this season.
Rawness remains, understandably, as he is still learning his trade at this level: Stones ought to have fared better on two of the three visiting goals in the recent defeat to Crystal Palace. There are, however, signs of Stones being a defender keen to learn and iron out any perceived issues in his game.
During one of his earlier league outings against Stoke, there was a weak defensive header prior to the Stoke goal. Since then, though, heading has improved beyond doubt; the weakness has been addressed.
Although there are numerous players competing for a spot in the 23-man England squad at the end of season, this is one youngster that England boss Roy Hodgson should definitely be booking on that flight to Brazil.