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Can Everton crack the top-four this year?

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A top-four finish.

That was the goal that new manager, Roberto Martinez, boldly set forth for Everton upon his arrival at Goodison Park last season, to which many a pundit shook his head. Fast forward nine months, however, and no one was laughing.

Having defeated the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United (twice) and Arsenal, the Toffees had the look of world beaters. The style of play had gone from Route 1 and rugged under David Moyes to attacking and elegant under Martinez. As the season wound down, Everton pressed Arsenal for that elusive fourth spot before settling for fifth place.

Now, with the UEFA Europa League on the horizon, Everton enter the Premier League once again looking to surprise the competition. And as far as Martinez is concerned, the goal remains the same:

“I think the Premier League this season will be quite unique because of the number of teams fighting to get into the top four,” he told the Metro. “Manchester United will be a force, 100 per cent, the top four of last season will be stronger and I think Spurs will benefit from all the investment of a year ago. But I would like to believe we will benefit from being together for 12 months and we will be stronger. I will never shy away from trying to get Champions League football because that has to be where we’re trying to get to.”

As the Spaniard notes, Manchester United and Tottenham are two sides better equipped to compete for a top-four finish this season. Joining them are the usual characters of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. Seven clubs vying for four prestigious spots. Hardly a walk in the park.

So can Everton do the incredible and crack the top-four for the first time in 10 years?

At the time of publishing, bookies have Everton as the seventh most likely team to finish in the Top 4. The odds of 5/1 don’t seem bad on the face but when you consider that City and Chelsea are 1/50 odds to finish Top 4, Arsenal are 1/3, Liverpool are 1/1 and Spurs are 3/1, it becomes quite clear that the Toffees are huge long shots. Which means if Martinez & Co. are to get it right they must have a near flawless season.

That said, here are five key points that, if achieved, can help Everton achieve their dreams of a top-four finish.

Stop Dropping So Many Points To Lesser Competition

While Everton enjoyed a number of landmark wins last season too often the club dropped points to lesser competition. Drawing with Norwich City, West Brom (twice), Stoke City, Cardiff City and Crystal Palace is inexcusable. Losing to Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Southampton is even more disheartening. Granted, the Premier League is the most competitive league in the world but the best squads avoid let downs and if Everton want to reach the top-four, consistency has to improve.

Win 3-4 Big Matches

While Everton did pull off a few landmark victories last year they only managed to win two of eight matches played against top-four sides. If they’re to prove themselves worthy of Champions League they’ll have to do better than that. Winning four of eight would be optimal but even three of eight would be an improvement that could make a world of difference.

Avoid European Strain Through Squad Rotation

It goes without saying, but Martinez must rotate the squad and the physio team must prepare the players well for the impact of Europe. The strain of playing in Europe can’t be understated and it seems each year Premier League sides involved in the competition fall apart come winter and spring. It’s a fact Martinez is no doubt aware of as he’s done well to bring in new talent on both permanent and loan deals. Cycling through the group will be key as last season saw a rash of long term injuries hurt the club. But now, with the return of guys like Darron Gibson, Steven Pienaar, and, eventually, Arouna Kone and Bryan Oviedo, Everton have the depth needed to go deep.

Continue Harvesting Youth Players

Under the Moyes regime, youth players were seldom factored into the squad. But under Martinez last season, youth was king as Ross Barkley (20 y/o), Romelu Lukaku (21 y/o), Gerard Deulofeu (20 y/o), James McCarthy (23 y/o) and John Stones (20 y/o) all blossomed under the Spaniard’s tutelage. This year, Muhamed Besic (21 y/o) should see plenty of time while fellow transferee Brendan Galloway (18 y/o) could make his way into the first team. If Martinez is to continue his good work it will be crucial for an academy product to make a breakthrough as well. Look out for George Green (18 y/o), Hallam Hope (20 y/o), Chris Long (19 y/o), or Luke Garbutt (21 y/o) to be next in line for a debut.

Score Goals

Score goals, win games. A patently obvious point but when a club that’s renowned for tight finances goes out and drops $47 million on a striker like Romelu Lukaku, there had better be a solid return. Last year the Belgian scored 15 league goals while on loan with the Toffees and this year the goal should be to hit 20. A big ask for a big investment. But it’s not all on Lukaku as countryman Kevin Mirallas needs to target double digits, Ross Barkley must capitalize on his big goal capability and, once healthy, Kone has to absorb the role of super sub off the bench.

VIDEO: Will Ferrell is feeling guilty – “I got Jose Mourinho fired”

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Sometimes there’s just something you have to admit.

[ MORE: Mourinho to United “done deal”

It sounds better if you say it out loud and get it off your chest. This is one of those moments for comedian, actor and now part-owner of a Major League Soccer franchise, LAFC, Will Ferrell.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Joining the Men In Blazers this week the self-proclaimed soccer nut joked that he was the one who actually got Jose Mourinho fired by Chelsea.

For real.

Just seven months after leading Chelsea to the Premier League title, Mourinho was dismissed by the west London club in December.

Jump to just before the two-minute mark in the video above to see Ferrell’s admission and what exactly happened.

NOTE: Severe tongue-in-cheek mode activated.

WATCH: NBC to stream USWNT, every CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying game

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The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships kick off on Wednesday and NBC Sports will be streaming all 15 games of the tournament over the next 11 days.

Every single game will be streamed live online or on the app via NBC Sports Live Extra, in addition to up to four matches airing on NBCSN.

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The eight-team tournament takes place from Feb. 10-21 in Houston and Frisco, Texas, with the top two teams advancing to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Below is a full schedule of the games.

2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship Schedule

Frisco, Texas – Toyota Stadium
Houston, Texas – BBVA Compass Stadium
Times U.S. Central (U.S. Eastern in parentheses)

FIRST ROUND
Group A: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica
Group B: Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana

Wednesday, Feb. 10 (Frisco)
Puerto Rico vs. Mexico                                   5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Costa Rica                                    7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Feb. 11 (Houston)
Guatemala vs. Trinidad & Tobago                  5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guyana                                           7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 13 (Frisco)
Costa Rica vs. Puerto Rico                              12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
USA vs. Mexico                                                 3 p.m. (4 p.m.) NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET

Sunday, Feb. 14 (Houston)
Guyana vs. Guatemala                                     12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
Trinidad vs. Canada                                          3 p.m. (4 p.m.)

Monday, Feb. 15 (Frisco)
Mexico vs. Costa Rica                                       5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Puerto Rico                                          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) LIVE on NBCSN

Tuesday, Feb. 16 (Houston)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana                         5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guatemala                                      7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Feb. 19 (Houston)
Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up          4:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m.) ***
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) ***

FINAL

Sunday, Feb. 21 (Houston)
Semifinal winners                                            4 p.m. (5 p.m.) NBCSN at 11 p.m.

***USA’s semifinal, should the USA advance, will air LIVE on NBCSN

Sunderland’s Adam Johnson admits child sex charge

BRADFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10:  Adam Johnson arrives with girlfriend Stacey Flounders at the Crown Court on February 10, 2016 in Bradford, England. The Sunderland FC midfielder, aged 28 and from Castle Eden, County Durham, is on trial having previously denied three counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming. He has one daughter.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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Premier League winger Adam Johnson has pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child, but the Sunderland player has denied two other charges.

Johnson, 28, appeared at Bradford Crown Court in Yorkshire, England on Wednesday and admitted the sex count and another count of grooming.

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The former Middlesbrough and Manchester City winger is an England international but has denied two other charges of having sex with a girl under the age of 16.

Up until Wednesday Johnson had pleaded not guilty but following legal talks he agreed to admit to two of the charges.

[ MORE: Reports claim Mourinho to United is “done deal” ]

The trial over the charges Johnson has denied will be held this Friday and a jury has been sworn in. The initial trial date of Aug. 3, 2015 was adjourned.

Johnson was originally arrested in March 2015 over allegations he had sex with a 15-year-old girl.

He played eight times in the final months of last season after the allegations became public, plus he has made 20 appearances in all competitions for Sunderland this season.

Report: Mourinho tells friends he will be new Man United manager

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Numerous reports from the British tabloids claim former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has told close friends he will take charge of Manchester United this summer.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Both the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror have plastered headlines such as “Mourinho: Takes it as red” and “United job is mine” across their backpages on Wednesday morning, while the Daily Mail say Mourinho believes it’s a “done deal” for him to take over at Old Trafford.

Mourinho, 53, was fired by Chelsea in December just seven months after leading the Blues to the Premier League title.

The Portuguese coach has won three PL trophies in five full seasons in England but Chelsea’s dramatic collapse this season saw them floundering towards the relegation zone rather than fighting to defend their crown.

[ MORE: Arsenal, Spurs to contend for PL title? ]

With Louis Van Gaal‘s long-time future at United in question — the veteran Dutch coach, 64, has a deal through the end of the 2016-17 season — and the Red Devils six points off the top four in the PL despite sepnding over $375 million on new players in the past 18 months, it is believed that United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is under pressure to appoint a manager capable of returning United back to title contenders and perennial challengers in Europe.

On Tuesday it was reported that United had reached out to reps of Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, and it certainly seems like they’re assessing their options before giving LVG even more money to spend this summer, if he’s still around.

If United decide to make a change, Mourinho fits the bill.

At least in terms of winning trophies and attracting the best players on the planet which will be increasingly necessary for United to stay in touch with crosstown rivals Manchester City who will be managed by one of Mourinho’s great managerial foes, Pep Guardiola, from next season. After winning the UEFA Champions League with FC Porto and Inter Milan, the eccentric yet brilliant coach has also won league titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. Following the debacles on and off the pitch this season at Chelsea, Mourinho needs a chance to prove himself and be in charge of a rebuilding project. He wants to stay in England and after being fired by Chelsea twice in his career, you get the sense that United is the only other club befitting of his reputation that can offer him a job he deems up to his standards.

After Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, it is believed the United’s hierarchy turned down the chance to appoint Mourinho as they didn’t want the media circus and the antics which come from hiring Mourinho. Now, though, it’s all about winning and Mourinho will be United’s best chance of transitioning from the disappointing David Moyes era and the so far underwhelming spell since Van Gaal’s been in charge.