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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.

Khedira earns Juventus three points as Napoli defeats AC Milan

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 27:  Sami Khedira #6 with his teammates of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and Juventus FC at Stadio Olimpico on August 27, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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Sami Khedira hasn’t found the field much since moving to Juventus two summers ago, but when he does, he has a striker’s eye.

The German bagged his eighth goal for Juventus in just his 28th appearance as the Italian giants went on the road and defeated Lazio 1-0.

A poor clear attempt by Lucas Biglia saw Paulo Dybala’s lofted ball over the top fall to Khedira, and he skittered the ball across the face of goal into the far corner. The win is the second of the year for Juventus after they took down Fiorentina in their opening match.

There was a goal-fest at Stadio San Paolo as Napoli defeated AC Milan 4-2 braces from Arkadiusz Milik and Jose Callejon. Milik’s came in the first-half, with the opener in 18th minute, a lucky bounce as Dries Mertens’ shot clattered off the post and fell in Milik’s lap. He doubled Napoli’s lead in the 33rd minute with a beautiful header into the far corner, out-jumping Juraj Kucka.

The second half saw a flurry of action. A pair of goals four minutes apart saw Milan tie things up as M’baye Niang and Suso brought them level. Then, the yellow cards came flying. As a result, Kucka and Niang were both sent off for second cautions. Jose Callejon took advantage, bagging his first in the 74th and doubling his tally in stoppage time in a ridiculous bit of play that saw Alessio Romagnoli try to swat Mertens’ cross away from the goal line…yes, as in with his hands.

It’s a wonder Romagnoli wasn’t sent off for his actions. Napoli

Following USWNT suspension, Hope Solo takes leave of absence from club

TUKWILA, WA - AUGUST 31: Hope Solo #1 of Seattle Reign FC warms up before the National Women's Soccer League Championship on August 31, 2014 at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Washington.  (Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
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Hope Solo’s USWNT suspension did not predicate she take time off from her club team the Seattle Reign, but that is exactly what she will be doing.

The 35-year-old goalkeeper will be taking a leave of absence from playing all forms of soccer, the Reign announced. They did not say how long she will be gone.

The club signed 21-year-old Andi Tostanoski as a replacement for Solo on the roster – Tostanoski’s third one-game replacement contract with the Reign. 26-year-old Haley Kopmeyer was given the start in today’s match against the Portland Thorns.

Many believe Solo’s international career could be over after U.S. Soccer reportedly terminated her contract. Despite that, club soccer was still immediately available to her. Even though U.S. Soccer pays her club salary as part of her USWNT deal, that portion of her contract was not terminated, according to reports.

Solo was suspended from international play for six months just two days ago mainly for comments she made following the USWNT loss to Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals. However, it was clear from statements on both sides that an accumulation of actions, both in the public and private eye, had contributed to her eventual punishment.

Despite her controversial actions and personality, Solo has unquestionably remained the best goalkeeper in women’s international soccer, and has been that was for a number of years. She holds the world records in international appearances, wins, and shutouts for goalkeepers in women’s soccer.

Arsene Wenger confirms deals for Mustafi and Perez are complete

GETAFE, SPAIN - APRIL 24:  Shkodran Mustafi of Valencia applauds fans after Valencia drew 2-2 with Getafe CF during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Valencia CF at Coliseum Alfonso Perez on April 24, 2016 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Arsenal has completed a pair of big-money deals with the transfer windows closing down,.

Manager Arsene Wenger confirmed that the club has finished the transfers of Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez, two players they have long been linked with. He also confirmed the club was unlikely to sign any other players, unless new opportunities cropped up before the window shuts on Wednesday.

“We have bought two players, Mustafi and Perez. We had to work very hard to get signings done,” Wenger said. “We have no plans for anyone else now.”

Mustafi fills the most pressing need, helping patch up a back line ravaged by injuries. He is set to sign a five-year deal, according to the BBC and other reports. The fee is a reported $46 million.

Perez, a 27-year-old Spaniard, also fills a heavy need up front. With just Olivier Giroud and Chuba Akpom as the only healthy strikers available to the Gunners, Perez will help fill a gap. Perez was purchased for a reported $22 million, triggering the player’s release clause.

It’s unclear how soon the players will be available to play for Arsenal. The club next takes on Southampton after the international break.

Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Gladbach all win in Bundesliga openers

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 14:  Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Borussia Dortmund is challenged by Alberto Moreno of Liverpool during the UEFA Europa League quarter final, second leg match between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund at Anfield on April 14, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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The Bundesliga officially opened Friday with Bayern Munich’s 6-0 demolition of Werder Bremen, but the rest of the league got under way Saturday, and it was business as usual.

Borussia Dortmund cruised with a 2-1 win over FC Mainz at Westfalenstadion behind a brace from main man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The first came early in the 17th minute, a headed goal at the far post on the end of a beautiful ball from Andre Schurrle. The second on a penalty in the 89th minute after Schurrle was fouled by Karim Onisiwo. Aubameyang started last season with 13 goals in the team’s first 10 games, and he’s begun this year’s campaign on the same foot.

Wolfsburg worked its way to a 2-0 win on the road at Augsburg with a pair of impressive goals. Daniel Didavi bagged the first, while the second was a late free-kick from Ricardo Rodriguez to double the lead.

Borussia Monchengladbach won a thriller at Borussia-Park 2-1 thanks to an 85th minute winner from Lars Stindl. The 28-year-old stayed just onside and beat Tin Jedvaj to the ball, slotting it in five minutes from time for all three points. Goals from Andre Hahn and substitute Joel Pohjanpalo had cancelled each other out. Fabian Johnson entered the game in the 61st minute.

Elsewhere, Timmy Chandler and Eintracht Frankfurt held serve at home with a 1-0 win over Schalke. Alex Maier scored the only goal in the 13th minute, and while he had a later penalty saved, The Eagles held their opponents scoreless the rest of the way. Chandler came on as a 56th minute substitute and helped keep the clean sheet.

Ingolstadt pulled out a 1-1 draw on the road at Hamburg thanks to a 76th minute equalizer from Lukas Hinterseer, cancelling out Bobby Wood’s goal on his Bundesliga debut.

Marcel Reese and Anthony Modeste gave Cologne a 2-0 home win over Darmstadt.