In a season where the race for Champions League qualification spots is so open, Sunday’s clash between Everton and Spurs offers both clubs an opportunity to land a blow on a rival for those positions. However, for both clubs this season represents more than a barometer with which to measure the seriousness of either’s pretensions to claim a place at Europe’s top table. The ramifications to the future aspirations of both clubs could be seriously dented by failure to take advantage of the continuing poor form of perennial qualifiers Arsenal, and last season’s Champions League winners Chelsea.
Everton and David Moyes look to have worked miracles yet again on relatively limited resources. Usually slow starters, it genuinely looks as though this season it is really starting to click for the Goodison club. Undefeated at home, a deserved victory over Manchester United and draws with Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City see them three points off the top four with 23 points.
Injuries, so often the bane of their small squad, have been mercifully few, and those they have had to key players Kevin Mirallas and Victor Anichebe should be over soon, perhaps even by this weekend. While the squad is still small, the first team is dripping with quality. Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka have been joined in the England set-up by the long-overdue call up to Leon Osman. Marouane Fellaini has taken over Tim Cahill’s mantle of free-scoring midfielder, crashing in 8 goals so far this season, while Nikica Jelavic has carried on from where he left off last time around with 5. Steven Pienaar, a forgotten man whilst at Spurs, has looked back to his tricky, skilful best since his return to Goodison.
But here is the first clue as to why Champions League qualification is so important to Everton. They need to hang on to their best players, and qualification offers the best hope of that being achieved. The transfer offers for Fellaini are apparently already looming like a cloud on the horizon, and it will be a relief for Moyes if he can keep the Belgian past the closing of the January transfer window. The funding from reaching the competition proper, as they failed to do last time they qualified in 2005 after losing to Villarreal in the preliminary rounds, would give Moyes much needed funds to bolster his talented first team. It may also answer the persistent question over what, given his feats operating on a shoestring, he could achieve with money behind him.
Money would also offer Everton the chance to invest in their infrastructure and future. The much talked about move from, or upgrades to, Goodison Park might not be such a pipedream given the exposure, advertising and investment the Champions League can bring. Moyes, already a legend amongst the Everton faithful, could secure himself an enduring legacy by pushing Everton on to the next level, and, whilst they continue to rebuild under Brendan Rodgers, possibly even above their city rivals Liverpool. However, if Everton continue to play the part of nearly men, the squad could disintegrate, and Moyes, so often linked with any big job that arises, could leave the club to its fate under another, perhaps less talented manager.
For their part, this weekend’s guests at Goodison, Tottenham, know all about the tag of nearly men. After playing so well for such large swaths of the season, the 10 point cushion in third place that they enjoyed over bitter rivals Arsenal gradually evaporated, fourth spot ultimately proving a futile finish after Chelsea’s brave and historic triumph in Munich.
After a patchy start under Andre Villas Boas, the Spurs team look to have found their feet and come into the game occupying the fourth and final Champions League spot and on a run of three consecutive victories. It will still be a tough ask without their injured talisman Gareth Bale to become the first side to win at Goodison Park this term. For Spurs though, you also get the impression that failure to qualify for the Champions League for the third season in a row would be a major setback to their future plans, and something of a waste of the progress the club made under Harry Redknapp and of the talent the side possesses.
Like Everton, if Spurs want to hang on to their best players, qualification is a must. Luka Modric made no bones about his desire to leave after missing out for the past two seasons, and while his commitment to the cause has been admirable, you feel that Gareth Bale’s talents will only grace the stage of the Europa League for so long. Tottenham’s designs on a new stadium or redevelopment of White Hart Lane are well known, but the hand of the club in negotiating the potential for naming rights and the investment that this has brought to the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City, will be severely weakened if the club miss out again on the exposure of Europe’s elite competition.
Of course, there are other clubs with designs on those coveted Champions League spots, Arsenal and Chelsea chief amongst them, and you feel that their return to good form is only just around the corner. West Brom too, despite a run of three consecutive defeats, are still on level points with Spurs and above Everton, while the likes of Liverpool, West Ham and Newcastle may all argue that they have at least an outside chance of snatching a place. But this weekend, the potential for Everton or Tottenham to make a statement of intent and take another three-point stride towards the Champions League is clear. The importance for both of reaching their target should be lost on nobody.