Everton go into the most important game of their season on Sunday afternoon against Arsenal with Champions League Qualification in their hands.
The fixture is a true six pointer. Neither team can afford to lose if they wish to hear those iconic lyrics “These are the Champions” ringing out around Goodison Park or The Emirates next season.
After a promising start to the campaign the wheels seemed to have come off the Toffees Champions League qualification challenge. A post-Christmas dip in form seeing points dropped to relegation candidates Sunderland, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion had made a Europa League place attractive.
However five league wins in a row, coupled with Arsenal’s recent poor form, has left the blue half of Merseyside dreaming of a place in Europe’s elite.
Everton have the harder run in of the two, but they are more than capable of causing this upset. With a game in hand at home against Crystal Palace to come, beating the Gunners at Goodison this weekend would put them firmly in poll position. Six points from these fixtures will put Roberto Martinez’s side two points clear of Arsenal with only five games left to play, making them firm favourites for that final Champions League place.
The Toffees deserve that last spot and their place in Europe’s most prestigious club competition and it would be good for English football, and that is not an easy thing for a lifelong Liverpool fan to say.
Whilst Arsene Wenger has managed to bring Champions League football to North London for an impressive sixteen consecutive seasons, they have never won it and rarely look to be serious challengers. It would be interesting to see what a fresh English club would be able to achieve.
It would strengthen the English premier League by making Everton more competitive in the future. Champions League participation would not only allow them to attract a higher calibre of player but also provide the millions needed to secure such signings.
If it wasn’t for Brendan Rodgers then Roberto Martinez would be my pick for manager of the season. His tactics and style of play have breathed new life into one of English football’s sleeping giants. Everton have been a joy to watch this season and have been a match for anyone.
The manager has also crafted a platform of defensive stability. Everton have been the league’s third meanest defence this season only behind Chelsea and Manchester City. Seamus Coleman is currently the best right back in the league and a strong case could be made for Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka in their respective positions.
Nineteen year old John Stones has slipped effortlessly into the first team. He not only looks a commanding presence at Centre Back but also a real footballer, comfortable with the ball at his feet. This teenager definitely has a bright future for both club and country.
Perhaps the hardest thing Martinez has managed to achieve is instilling a winning mentality into his side, as was evident when they ground out a win away to Fulham last weekend despite a below par performance.
Everton have proven to be the example of how to operate a team on a low budget. They managed to actually turn profit in the summer transfer window thanks to the sale of Marouane Fellaini, which in itself was the best piece of business done by any club. Even Daniel Levy would have been proud of that one.
Three inspired loan signings have been key in explaining Everton’s form this season.
Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu is Martinez’s kind of player providing the Blues with width and attacking flare, netting three league goals and always looking a threat.
An often undervalued Gareth Barry has rejuvenated his career at Goodison Park. He has been key in allowing Everton’s flare players the freedom to shine, shielding the defence and breaking up opposition attacks. He has even chipped in with three league goals and has been Everton’s most consistent performer and best player at times this season.
For years Everton fans have been praying for the top class striker that they have so desperately needed. The loan signing of Romelu Lukaku has for now at least answered that prayer.
He has led the line with twelve vital goals in twenty-four league appearances. An imposing presence, the Belgian international has often proved the difference for the Merseysiders this season. Without him Everton are simply nowhere near the same side.
If Everton manage to beat Arsenal to fourth this season they will have deservingly done so on merit and none will be more deserving than this historic club’s devoted supporters.
Evertonians have remained loyal throughout their once successful club’s descent into mediocrity. Fans rightly remain bitter about the UEFA ban on English clubs during the 1980’s that denied what they believe to have been their European glory days.
The cruel false hope of 2005, the last time Everton finished in the top four under then manager David Moyes, has done little to dent the passion and pride of the Goodison Park faithful and it is time they had their long overdue moment in the sun.
Unlike Moyes I fully expect Martinez to deliver when it counts and take his side that one step further into European football’s promised land.