By David Charlesworth, PA
Rafael Benitez is stunned Everton’s trip to Burnley on Boxing Day has not been postponed after being left with just nine senior outfield players and three goalkeepers to choose from because of a Covid-19 outbreak.
Benitez revealed five members of his squad tested positive following a 1-1 draw at Chelsea on December 16 while the Spaniard’s options are limited even further as Brazilian forward Richarlison is among half a dozen injured players.
The Toffees sought to have their visit to Turf Moor rearranged but have been rebuffed by the Premier League and now seem to be relying on youngsters to fill their threadbare squad to allow the fixture to go ahead as planned.
“With the injuries and the positives we had we were expecting that the game would be postponed,” Benitez said.
“Now I have to think about if I have 11 players fit and where can I put them, so I am really surprised that we are playing this game.
“The problem is we have nine outfield players available plus three keepers and after we have to bring in five young players who are not even 21 years old. It seems that they have enough experience to play in the Premier League.”
Benitez has to weigh up whether to include Dominic Calvert-Lewin from the start against the struggling Clarets, with the England striker sidelined since August 28th, initially because of a broken toe then a thigh problem.
The club’s top-scorer last season bagged three goals in as many matches before succumbing to injuries and while he has returned to training, Benitez wanted to know who would be accountable if his star striker broke down again if he is rushed back early to fulfil Everton’s quota of players.
“It’s quite dangerous for us and maybe someone has to take responsibility,” Benitez said. “It’s not me, the manager, that wants to play the best players every game.
“These players after (being out for) months maybe they have to play 90 minutes, so we are exposing them.
“But someone has to consider because of the circumstances of this game, we have to play players that maybe are not ready or players that have some knocks or issues, it’s a difficult decision for us.
“I’m happy to see Dominic training with the team, and hopefully he can be fine. My main job now is to find 11 players in the right positions that they can compete against Burnley, it’s not easy.”
Benitez, who confirmed Lucas Digne would be available after three weeks on the sidelines, insisted Everton follow all the correct safety measures in an effort to minimise coronavirus disruption.
Yet he believes the club are being punished for doing so and cannot mitigate against an asymptomatic player infecting others if they are in close contact.
“We follow all the rules, we do the lateral flows, PCRs, we have the masks and three dressing rooms to spread out the players to be sure we reduce the time that they are together,” Benitez added.
“Some teams close the training ground, we try to do things properly, and maybe we are punished for that.
“What we cannot control when you go to a game if a player is positive, and he has no symptoms, he can pass the virus to the others. That is what happened the other day when we played against Chelsea.
“You travel together, you stay in the dressing room together, or you stay in the hotel together, the risk is higher. We have three dressing rooms but on the day of the game you have to stay in the dressing room all together.”