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.

MLS roundup: ATL roll past Galaxy; RSL survive 10-man Rapids

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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A roundup of, plus a few quick thoughts about, all of Saturday’s action from around MLS…

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta UnitedFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Two teams with fantastic attacking talent but very little in terms of a strong, controlling midfield presence — you’d expect a game like that to be wide open with plenty of chances at both ends of the field, and you’d have been right about Atlanta’s 2-0 victory over LA (at least for the opening 45 minutes. The stark difference between the two sides on Saturday? Atlanta’s ability to turn shooting chances into scoring chances, and LA’s inability to do so.

In truth, the chance resulting in the Five Stripes’ opening goal, which also turned out to be the winner, was the scrappiest once of the bunch.

Miguel Almiron was sensational on the night — constantly on the ball in dangerous areas, constantly gliding past one and two white shirts, constantly winning free kicks (and a penalty) in those dangerous areas. Since suffering a 4-0 defeat on opening day, Tata Martino’s side is unbeaten in their last six games (five wins) and moved to within a point of Eastern Conference- and Supporters’ Shield-leading New York City FC.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rendered completely ineffective and he — dare I say it — was little more than a passenger for the vast majority of Saturday’s game. Jonathan dos Santos picked up an injury during warmups, forcing Baggio Husidic into the starting lineup, and that did LA no favors when it came time to slow Atlanta’s momentum through the center of the field (which was the entire game).

Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England RevolutionFULL HIGHLIGHTS

If you had New England sitting above Columbus in the standings at any point this season, let alone after eight weeks, please proceed to the cash-out window immediately. Brad Friedel‘s bunch has played some pretty passable, if unexciting, soccer thus far and have picked up points in five of their seven games played. They’ve even won four points from their first three games away from home, which is two-thirds of the way to matching last season’s paltry haul of six.

Saturday’s 2-2 draw in Columbus saw the Revs come from behind twice to secure a well-earned and deserved point. Cristian Penilla has flown under the radar with regard to impact signings of the offseason — the Ecuadorian has two goals, including the stoppage-time equalizer on Saturday, and four assists in his first seven MLS games — and Diego Fagundez appears to have finally been handed the keys to the Revs’ attack with Lee Nguyen banished to the periphery (but still not traded away).

Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado RapidsFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Tim Howard was sent off after 20 minutes for handling the ball outside his penalty area — how great is that multi-million-dollar contract looking now? — yet Colorado so nearly held on for an away point against their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals. Alas, RSL scored three times in the final eight minutes of regular and stoppage time, helping the final score to match the lopsided nature of the preceding 60 minutes:

29 shots (10 on target), compared to just 12 (o on target) for Colorado; nearly 71 percent of possession; 571 passes, to just 228. The lopsidedness goes on and on.

Albert Rusnak scored a stunning free kick to complete the scoring, but was still upstaged by Damir Kreilach’s first MLS goal which came just three minutes earlier.

RSL have alternated wins and losses in each of their last six times out, which spells bad news for a suddenly important Friday night trip to Vancouver to face a Whitecaps side that 1) they beat at home earlier this month, and 2) has lost three straight, by a combined score of 10-1.

Elsewhere in MLS

Sporting KC 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union

Bundesliga wrap: Relegation playoff race stays tight

Christian Charisius/dpa via AP
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With three matches remaining for all 18 Bundesliga clubs, there’s clarity at the very top and bottom but plenty to sort in the races to qualify for Europe and avoid the relegation playoff.

[ RECAP: Man City 5-0 Swans ]

We focus on the latter here, with all three teams on 30 points losing away from home this weekend, including one to the 17th place side in Germany.

Hamburg 1-0 Freiburg

Lewis Holtby scored a 54th minute goal to keep the hosts’ slim survival hopes alive, and USMNT forward Bobby Wood got into the match for the final 23 minutes as Hamburg scooped up a rare win.

Augsburg 2-0 Mainz

The visitors had more of the ball but couldn’t rebound from a 29th minute Michael Gregoritsch goal, allowing Alfred Finnbogason to seal the result in stoppage time.

Borussia Monchengladbach 3-0 Wolfsburg

Wolfsburg has a hefty edge on Mainz and Freiburg in terms of goal differential, but won’t be feeling too confident after watching Lars Stindl, Raffael, and Christoph Kramer all score before halftime.

Elsewhere
RB Leipzig 2-5 Hoffenheim
Eintracht Frankfurt 0-3 Hertha Berlin
Stuttgart 2-0 Werder Bremen
Hannover 96 0-3 Bayern Munich
Borussia Dortmund 4-0 Bayer Leverkusen
Koln 2-2 Schalke — USMNT’s McKennie goes 90

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 31 25 3 3 84 22 62 13-2-0 12-1-3 78
 FC Schalke 04 31 16 8 7 49 35 14 9-4-2 7-4-5 56
 Borussia Dortmund 31 15 9 7 61 41 20 9-4-3 6-5-4 54
 Bayer Leverkusen 31 14 9 8 55 41 14 7-5-3 7-4-5 51
 1899 Hoffenheim 31 13 10 8 60 44 16 9-4-2 4-6-6 49
 RB Leipzig 31 13 8 10 47 47 0 8-4-4 5-4-6 47
 Eintracht Frankfurt 31 13 7 11 41 40 1 7-4-5 6-3-6 46
 Mönchengladbach 31 12 7 12 42 48 -6 8-4-4 4-3-8 43
 Hertha BSC Berlin 31 10 12 9 38 35 3 5-6-4 5-6-5 42
 VfB Stuttgart 31 12 6 13 29 35 -6 9-4-3 3-2-10 42
 FC Augsburg 31 10 10 11 40 40 0 6-4-6 4-6-5 40
 Werder Bremen 31 9 10 12 34 38 -4 6-5-4 3-5-8 37
 Hannover 96 31 9 9 13 38 47 -9 7-3-6 2-6-7 36
 VfL Wolfsburg 31 5 15 11 30 40 -10 2-8-5 3-7-6 30
 FSV Mainz 05 31 7 9 15 32 49 -17 6-3-6 1-6-9 30
 SC Freiburg 31 6 12 13 26 51 -25 5-6-4 1-6-9 30
 Hamburger SV 31 6 7 18 24 48 -24 5-4-7 1-3-11 25
 1. FC Köln 31 5 7 19 31 60 -29 3-5-8 2-2-11 22

Pep celebrates another historic Man City performance

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Pep Guardiola was thrilled with his club’s response to sealing the Premier League title: More dominance.

[ RECAP: Man City 5-0 Swans ]

Man City battered Swansea City 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium on the strength of goals from five different players.

“From the first minute to the last one, we played what we have shown in the season,” Guardiola said on NBCSN after the match. “(We scored) a lot of goals and we didn’t concede. We play to keep improving our game here and for the next season.”

Guardiola could hardly differentiate between the club’s stylish Sunday goals, saying, “The first one, the second one, of course the third one. … The Yaya pass was amazing. All the goals were so good.”

And he was also pleased with the support from the Etihad Stadium crowd, though he admits he was grateful to escape before the City faithful stormed the pitch.

Guardiola said he thinks the supporters are still behind their team despite the decisive UEFA Champions League loss to Liverpool because of how hard City plays week-in and week-out.

“That’s happened because they know that we are not liars in the way we want to play,” he said. “They know that we tried our best from the beginning to the end. We knew from the beginning how happy they were.”

Conte relishing renewal of Mourinho rivalry

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LONDON —  Antonio Conte versus Jose Mourinho. Chelsea versus Manchester United.

The FA Cup final on May 19 will be some showdown between two Premier League giants as Chelsea breezed past Southampton 2-0 in their semifinal at Wembley on Sunday.

Conte against Mourinho is a battle which has become increasingly feisty over the past two seasons as they’ve had public spats and insulted one another.

Speaking after the game, Conte was asked about his relationship with Mourinho and potential fireworks on the sidelines, as well as on the pitch, during the final.

“With Jose [Mourinho], we have clarified the situation and that is the most important thing. There is not a problem between him and I,” Conte said. “I think this is a final between two great teams. In my mind I can tell you last season we arrived as favorites against Arsenal. I think in this season season we are not arriving as favorites but as you know very well, last season we lost the cup.”

Conte then revealed he respects Mourinho despite the words the two had earlier this season.

The Italian coach responded to Mourinho’s comments about him, and other PL managers, acting like “clowns” on the sidelines by saying Mourinho was a “fake, little man” as United’s manager also hit out and made a remark about Conte’s involvement in a previous match-fixing investigation.

“We are talking about two managers with a strong character and about two winners and when your mind, your heart, your blood and there is the will to win, for sure we want to try to win this trophy,” Conte said. “The same way Manchester United wants to achieve this. I have great respect for United’s story, for Mourinho’s story. I think they have the same respect for Chelsea’s story and my story.”

Let’s see if that respect is on show during what should be a fantastic final next month as it could well be Conte’s final game in charge of Chelsea.