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.

Sweden players, coaches left fuming after last-minute loss

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A last-minute goal. A non-called penalty. A disrespectful celebration.

Sweden had a lot to be upset about when the final whistle blew on Saturday.

[ MORE: Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion” ]

The Swedes were within seconds of holding defending champion Germany to a draw, and moving into good position to advance to the round of 16 at the World Cup, when Toni Kroos scored deep into stoppage time to give Germany a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.

“I’m sorry that we didn’t get at least one point,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said. “But I’m not blaming anyone tactically or analyzing too much right now, there are so many emotions going around. This is probably the heaviest conclusion that I’ve experienced in my career.”

Kroos’ goal from a set piece came in the fifth and final minute of injury time. The draw would have kept Sweden ahead of Germany in Group F and needing only a draw against Mexico in the last match.

[ MORE: Germany snatches late win over Sweden to avoid elimination ]

“It was just bad luck,” Sweden forward John Guidetti said. “Now we need to try to find a way to win the last match. In a few days we play again and we have to win it. It’s simple.”

Germany, which is tied with Sweden on points and goal difference, will play against South Korea in the final round.

“We still have an excellent opportunity to qualify,” Andersson said. “Now we have to clean up, tidy up after this game. We’re going to do that.”

The Swedes were leading Germany at halftime thanks to Ola Toivonen’s goal in the 32nd minute at Fisht Stadium. They felt they could have been ahead even earlier if the referee had called a penalty when Marcus Berg appeared to be fouled inside the area with a clear chance to score. There was no formal video review called for.

“If we have the (VAR) system, it’s very unfortunate that he (the referee) can feel so secure in the moment that he doesn’t go and have a look at the situation,” Andersson said.

He and the Swedish players said they also couldn’t understand why Germany decided to celebrate near their bench.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“You shouldn’t celebrate in front of our bench the way they did, that’s disrespectful,” Guidetti said. “You can celebrate with your own fans. Don’t celebrate in front of our bench like that. That’s why they apologized, because they knew they did something wrong.”

Andersson said he was “very annoyed” by seeing the Germany team “running in our direction and rubbing it in our faces by making gestures.”

“We fought hard for 95 minutes,” he said. “And when the final whistle blows, you shake hands.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — England, Colombia back in action

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Day 11 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Sunday, with England back in action and in need of three points — and a resounding win — to keep pace with Belgium in Group G.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Following Belgium’s 5-2 thrashing of Tunisia — the same side that England beat in stoppage time earlier in the week — on Saturday, the Red Devils have positioned themselves perfectly to win the group with a draw against the Three Lions on Thursday. England need a five-goal victory at 6-1 or higher to the finish top of the group following a draw on the final day.

Then, it’s a pair of Group H fixtures, kicked off with Japan (1st) versus Senegal (2nd) — both of whom won their first game — followed by Poland (3rd) versus Colombia (4th).

Below is Sunday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Sunday, June 24

Group G
England vs. Panama: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group H
Japan vs. Senegal: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Colombia: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

FIFA opens case against Xhaka, Shaqiri for celebrations

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FIFA’s disciplinary committee opened disciplinary proceedings against Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri for politically charged goal celebrations during their 2-1 World Cup win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

[ MORE: The meaning behind Xhaka, Shaqiri’s eagle celebration ]

FIFA also said Saturday it has opened disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian Football Association for crowd disturbance and the display of political and offensive messages by Serbian fans. FIFA also is reviewing statements that Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic made after the match.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated their goals by making a nationalist symbol of their ethnic Albanian heritage. Both of their families come from Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The Polish Football Association was fined $10,100 and given a warning by FIFA’s disciplinary committee for a banner that the governing body deemed political and offensive. The banner was displayed during Senegal’s 2-1 win over Poland on Tuesday in Moscow.

The committee also opened disciplinary proceedings against the federations of Argentina and Croatia for crowd disturbances during Croatia’s 3-0 win Thursday at Nizhny Novgorod.

Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion”

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At 1-0 down, they were headed for elimination in the group stage (with a game still to play); once level at 1-1, they faced yet a steep hill to climb on the final day of the group stage; after Toni Kroos scored his stunning 94th-minute winner, Joachim Low could finally exhale and imagine himself managing the German national team for another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup was, for most intents and purposes, a worrying performance for the defending world champions. Fortunately for Low and Co., the one place in which their comeback dramatic victory was a raging success is the only one that matters: the Group F table, where Die Mannschaft currently (somehow) sit second and control their own destiny — quotes from the BBC:

“This was a thriller, full of emotion, right up until the final whistle. Brandt hit the goal post just three minutes before the end too. We took out a defensive player and brought on an attacking player because we knew had to bring on everything we had to turn it round.

“We had a couple of great chances — Mario Gomez’s header being one of them. The last couple of minutes were full of drama but those matches exist in football. We’ve had these situations in other tournaments as well. For the viewers that’s part of the attractiveness of football.”

“Something I did appreciate today was that we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic after going a goal down. We kept a level head and said we needed to make quick passes and tire the Swedes out to open up spaces.

“We didn’t score a couple of good chances but we never lost hope we could win the match and I think the goal scored in stoppage time had a bit of luck involved but it did show the belief we had in ourselves.”

There’s still plenty of work to do for one of the most popular pre-tournament favorites — there’s a little matter of needing to beat, or at the very least, best Sweden’s result against Mexico — but that can wait until tomorrow, because Saturday unexpectedly became all about survival.