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.

On This Day: The Battle of Old Trafford

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Fourteen years ago today, Arsenal headed north to Manchester for a famous matchup with Manchester United.

Taking the field at Old Trafford, Arsenal were unbeaten to start the season, having won its first four Premier League matches before drawing a week prior at home against Portsmouth. Manchester United meanwhile had four wins and one loss in that span.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

By way of Arsenal’s FA Cup title and Man United’s Premier League title the year before, the two teams met for the annual Community Shield a month earlier, and the game descended into a physical battle. Five yellow cards were shown, Arsenal substitute Francis Jeffers was shown a red card and defender Sol Campbell was later banned for kicking at an opponent, and Man United – backed by a young Tim Howard in goal – won 4-3 on penalty kicks after the score was tied at 1-1 after extra time.

With numerous physical encounters over the years, the September 21 encounter was shaping up to be another monumental showdown, and in terms of physicality, it didn’t disappoint.

Each team were shown four yellow cards and there was a combined 31 fouls. The match took a turn when Patrick Vieira was shown a second yellow card and subsequent red card for kicking out at Man United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy after Van Nistelrooy had fouled Vieira going for a header. The decision set off a scrum in the middle of the field.

Despite being down to ten men, Arsenal held on until the final minutes, when Martin Keown was whistled for a foul in the box on Diego Forlan, giving Man United a penalty kick. But whether it was karma or lady luck, Van Nistelrooy’s penalty clanged off the crossbar and away to safety. Arsenal held on for a goalless draw, which helped boost the team’s belief in itself.

The Gunners went on to finish the 2013-2014 season undefeated, the only team to finish a Premier League season without a defeat. Man United wound up taking the FA Cup crown, settling for third place in the Premier League.

Watch some highlights from the match below.

Former Sunderland forward Scocco scores five goals for River Plate

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Veteran forward Ignacio “Nacho” Scocco is quickly endearing himself to the River Plate faithful.

Nearly three months since joining River, Scocco scored an incredible five goals in the second leg of his team’s Copa Libertadores quarterfinal matchup with Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann. Scocco scored a first half hat-trick and added two more in the second half as River turned around a 3-0 deficit heading into the second leg.

Scocco had a mostly frustrating spell in 2014 ahead of the World Cup with Sunderland, joining the club as they staved off relegation by one point. Scocco failed to score for Sunderland in eight appearances, all off the bench.

However, since then, he returned to his native Argentina and starred for his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys before moving this summer to River as a replacement for Sebastián Driussi, who completed a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Here’s a look at all of Scocco’s goals Thursday evening.

Tammy Abraham denies switching national teams

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Fans of the England National Team may still have a chance to see Tammy Abraham don the Three Lions crest one day.

Abraham refuted reports from earlier Thursday that he was in the process of switching his national team to Nigeria from England. The 19-year-old Swansea City forward on-loan from Chelsea has played as high as the England Under-21 Men’s National Team but because of his Nigerian father, he’s eligible for the African nation.

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Abraham confirmed that he had met with Nigeria Football Federation chief Amaju Pinnick after Swansea’s last game, but denied that he was looking to play for the Super Eagles.

“I have informed The FA that I remain available for selection for England,” Abraham said, via the BBC. “Contrary to reports in the media I would like to clarify that I have not agreed to switch my national team allegiance. I can confirm I met the President of the NFF after our last game against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday given he is a friend of my father. However, any suggestion that I have made a decision to change my international representation is incorrect and wide of the mark.”

Earlier in the day, reports emerged that Pinnick said the process was underway for Abraham to switch his international allegiance.

Abraham’s apparently decision to remain with the England set-up is good news for his club Swansea City, who will get to keep him closer to Wales on a regular basis, but Abraham may be missing a chance to play senior national team soccer at a young age.

Paulinho has silenced his critics at Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Brazil midfielder Paulinho wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes when he arrived in Barcelona.

Fans made it clear they were not too thrilled to see the club spend 40 million euros ($48 million) on a defensive midfielder who was playing in the Chinese league.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ]

They were expecting a blockbuster signing after Neymar’s departure and ended up getting a player they knew very little about.

Paulinho didn’t have any links to the club’s youth academy and his style apparently didn’t suit the team’s traditional ball-possession game.

A video of Paulinho struggling to juggle the ball during his presentation at Camp Nou Stadium didn’t help, going viral and igniting even more criticism against the player and the club.

But things have changed quickly in favor of the low-key, hard-working Brazilian.

After five Spanish league games, Paulinho has done enough to mollify the critics.

He has two goals, including a late winner against Getafe last weekend, and showed some of the prowess that led him to success in Brazil and made him an indisputable starter for his national team.

He thrived after coming off the bench in his first four matches, and eventually earned a start on Tuesday against Eibar.

“I’m happy with how things have gone for me,” Paulinho said. “I’m glad that I’m playing well, it helps me get adapted to the club. I’m playing alongside some great players and they have all been supporting me a lot.”

The 29-year-old Paulinho has added versatility to the midfield. He is solid as a defensive midfielder but also excels with attacking runs that often surprise defenders.

That’s how he scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 win against Getafe, making a run between defenders and entering the area to fire a firm shot into the far corner. His second goal was a header in a 6-1 rout of Eibar.

“He will end up being a cheap signing,” Brazil teammate and former Barcelona player Dani Alves said.

Paulinho has a lot more presence in the area than some of the team’s other midfielders, including Ivan Rakitic and even Andres Iniesta.

It was this that made Paulinho a key player in the Corinthians team that won Club World Cup in 2012. His success with the Brazilian club prompted a move in 2013 to Tottenham, where he disappointed in his two seasons before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande.

Paulinho, who signed a four-year contract with Barcelona, said he had regained his confidence while playing in China. And his good performances with Brazil also helped.

“He gives us a lot of versatility. He can help us in many different ways,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Barcelona’s next game is on Saturday at Girona. The Catalan club has won its first five Spanish league games and has a two-point lead over second-place Sevilla.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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