Everton boss Roberto Martinez has hit back at what he feels has been some "cheap talk" about his players' efforts of late.
After pulling off a fine 4-1 Europa League last-32 first-leg victory over Young Boys in Bern last Thursday, Martinez's men returned to less-than-impressive Barclays Premier League form on Sunday, scraping a 2-2 home draw against bottom side Leicester.
Among those criticized over their performances in the Leicester game – which left 12th-placed Everton with a record of only two wins in 14 league matches – were 21-year-olds Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley.
But in his press conference to preview Thursday's second leg against Young Boys at Goodison Park, Martinez was keen to speak up for his charges.
The Spaniard said: "I think there has been a lot of cheap talk from the outside – a lot of talk about Romelu Lukaku, about Ross Barkley and about our form.
"We just accept that – all we need to do is focus on winning games and enjoying our football."
Although he failed to convert several chances across the last two games, striker Lukaku scored a hat-trick in the Young Boys contest to take his tally for the season to 13, before seeing his header deflect in off Leicester defender Matthew Upson for Everton's late equalizer on Sunday.
Barkley, meanwhile, struggled in that fixture but had also shone in Switzerland.
And Martinez added: "If you have a player who can create many chances and score a hat-trick, and then force the defender to get an own-goal, I think that's an outstanding contribution. You can decide to criticize it or to admire it.
"Rom is 21 and still learning, but to have that sort of impact is a big asset from our point of view.
"The amount of chances he is creating is pleasing me, converted or not – that is just a matter of time. I think he has been a real threat.
"Ross is one of the best young European talents. You need to find a way to be consistent, because at times you will get opposition who will man-mark Ross and make it difficult. It is part of the learning curve for him and for us as a team."
Another Everton player who did well last Thursday but less so on Sunday was goalkeeper Tim Howard, with critics pointing out that his errors had been key to both of Leicester's goals.
But the shot-stopper also has the backing of his manager, with Martinez indicating Howard is set to start the second leg against Young Boys.
Defender John Stones is suspended after being sent off in the first leg, while on-loan winger Aaron Lennon is cup-tied.
The Toffees are also set to be without Bryan Oviedo (hamstring), Tony Hibbert (unspecified), Christian Atsu (illness) and Aiden McGeady (knee), but Leon Osman (foot) and Steven Pienaar (knee) will be assessed with a view to them making their comebacks and Gareth Barry, banned on Sunday, is available again.
Midfielder Barry has no doubt the Europa League, which has a Champions League place on offer for its winners, provides Everton's only realistic chance of securing continental action for next term – and that the Merseysiders going all the way is achievable.
The 34-year-old said: "Realistically the best hope we've got is to go on and win this competition. That was always the target from the outset – to try to win it and get into the Champions League, which is massive.
"At the same time we still want to go back and finish well in the league.
"I think we've shown we're more than capable of going all the way. There's no reason we can't do that."
Young Boys, second in the Swiss league, beat leaders Basel 4-2 on Sunday.
And Martinez has warned against the "huge problem" of complacency on Thursday, saying: "I know there's been a lot of talk about the scoreline that we had in Bern last week but this is another game, and Young Boys were outstanding at the weekend against Basel."
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