Everton, the Premier League’s dark-horse for Champions League qualification

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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!

Video: Fekir’s brilliant free kick has Lyon leading PSG

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Paris-Saint Germain has established itself as one of Europe’s best sides, but their opponent on Sunday isn’t playing scared against Neymar and Co.

[ MORE: Spurs, Saints play to 1-1 draw at St. Mary’s ]

Lyon has taken a 1-0 lead inside the opening two minutes against the Parisians after a stunning free kick by Nabil Fekir caught PSG keeper Alphonse Aréola off his line.

The hosts could move all the way up to second place today with a victory over PSG, who holds the league lead in Ligue 1 with a nine-point advantage.

The 24-year-old Fekir has been a revelation for Lyon in his fifth season with the club, scoring his 19th goal in all competitions on Sunday.

That total has already surpassed his career-high from the 2014/15 season, when he eclipsed 15 goals.

USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie injured in Schalke draw

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Look away, U.S. Men’s National Team fans.

American and Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie was forced out of Sunday’s 1-1 Bundesliga draw against Hanover 96 after the 19-year-old collided with Felix Kraus.

McKennie, who entered the match in the 62nd minute for Leon Goretzka, managed to stay on the field for nearly 20 minutes before being substituted out.

To this point there has been no indication that the young USMNT player’s injury is serious.

More to follow…

Watford announces Gracia as Silva replacement

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Watford’s replacement for fired manager Marco Silva is indeed veteran Spanish boss Javi Gracia.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

The Hornets announced the 47-year-old’s hiring on Sunday, hours after firing Silva and blaming Everton’s pursuit of the manager for the club’s fall from European contender to the fringe of a relegation battle.

Watford is still four points clear of the drop following Southampton’s draw with Spurs on Sunday.

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Pochettino on sloppy Spurs draw, dismisses Malcom “rumor”

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Mauricio Pochettino knows St. Mary’s well, and the ex-Southampton boss has managed a rainy, sloppy match or three there in the past.

[ RECAP: Saints 1-1 Spurs ]

So he knows it’s possible to play well in those circumstances, leaving him feeling like Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw at Southampton on Sunday was a wasted opportunity against a struggling Saints side.

“It is temporary that Southampton are in the relegation zone, for sure they will push up the table,” Pochettino said. “It is two points we are going to miss at the end of the season because it is so tough between six or seven teams.”

[ MORE: Bertrand reacts to draw ]

So why couldn’t Spurs find their foothold? Well, aside from sickness keeping Christian Eriksen and Hugo Lloris out of the lineup, a bug that may’ve affected more on the team, Spurs just weren’t up to snuff.

“We struggled to play,” Pochettino said. “It was in possession, we made mistakes which allowed them to play. To win the game we should do better and play better. It wasn’t great.

Pochettino was also asked about Spurs’ reported pursuit of 20-year-old Bordeaux star Malcom, who has seven goals and five assists in Ligue 1 this season.

“That is a rumor and I don’t want to speak about it. I am happy with our squad. We are open to quality players but you know very well it is difficult in this transfer window.”