With a brutal fixture list and an array of key injuries, there’s little doubt that Everton are the Premier League’s dark-horse to qualify for Champions League football.
The 6th place Toffees head to White Hart Lane this weekend for a clash with 3rd place Tottenham, who Everton beat 2-1 in the reverse fixture last December. Revenge will certainly be on the minds of Spurs but it won’t come easy for Andre Villas-Boas’ side who carry the added burden of facing FC Basel in the quarter-finals of the Europa League on Thursday.
With six points separating Everton and Spurs (and the Blues holding a game in hand), Leighton Baines & Co. are keeping it cool and the left-back insists it is not a make-or-break match. “It’s a big game but there are plenty more after that and it won’t be decided by next weekend,” Baines told the Liverpool Echo. “We are the ones who are trailing and that probably means we are the least favourite of the teams but we are fighters.” And fighters they’ll need to be as Moyes’ side will once again have to cope with the absences of Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar, who will serve the second of their two match bans this Sunday.
To make their Champions League dreams a reality, the Toffees will need to finish on a dominant run of form. That means not only winning games they’re supposed to win – QPR, Sunderland, Fulham and West Ham – but also scalping at least two of the three big clubs they have yet to face – Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Currently just two points behind 5th placed Arsenal and four points behind 4th placed Chelsea, these contests will prove the difference makers at the end of the year.
To hit such form the notoriously thin Toffees will need to do everything to get their best players on the pitch, even if it means playing injured. In last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Stoke, Tim Howard and Phil Jagielka both returned, the former after more than a month out with a broken back and the later after three weeks sidelined with a gashed ankle. The center-back received a pain-killing injection to play, and that’s exactly the kind of determination and spirit that epitomizes this Everton squad. “At other clubs, you might get certain guys saying: ‘I will take another week and then come back’. But for me and Jags that never came into it – we love to pull on the shirt,” Howard said.
For Everton, qualifying for Champions League would mean more than the glory of playing in club football’s most prestigious contest as many believe the $30.3/£20 million in qualifying prize money would provide the impetus for David Moyes to end his contractual standoff and put pen to paper.
And who knows? With Champions League football on the horizon and a legendary manager locked down, maybe the fat-pocketed white knight that Evertonians have long dreamed of taking over the club will finally appear at the gates of Goodison Park.
Until then – ride, dark-horse, ride!