Everton’s 2-2 draw with Aston Villa leaves the race for the last Europa League place very much as-you-were. The stalemate is far more beneficial for the Villans than the Toffees and now David Moyes is left hoping Wednesday’s opponents suffer an almighty collapse – blowing their four-point advantage and game in hand – or Portsmouth’s inability to compete in Europe is confirmed.
Tim Cahill was again Everton’s hero in front of goal with two trademark headers – as indeed all of his strikes this season have been. The Australian’s supply line for the first of his brace was the man who could be England’s left-back this summer, Leighton Baines, and the former Wigan Athletic defender has certainly had a World Cup-worthy season. Baines is a dynamic forward presence as well as being a solid defensive stalwart with impressive stamina to keep thundering up and down the left wing after a season that, so far, has consisted of 44 games. His link with Steven Pienaar is one of Everton’s most potent attacking weapons and the South African’s tendency to wander in-field can leave Baines isolated – but the No.3 is rarely caught out such is his dedication to make up any lost ground. And the wicked left foot that led to the first of Cahill’s goals would provide England with a different option from set-pieces.
Wednesday’s game was the first to be played after voting for Everton’s Player of the Season was opened through the club’s official website and Baines should be a top contender for that award. In a season that has seen all-too-few members of the squad escape injury, Baines has missed just a handful of games – he is behind only Tim Howard for appearances this term. The American goalkeeper may have been another choice to take the coveted gong if not for his late error that gifted Villa a point and despite making some decent saves, the ex-Manchester United stopper looked shaky all night. Howard has been reliable for the majority of the season however, with few – if any – serious mistakes costing his team, but too often the No.24 is hesitant in leaving his line, causing panic to spread in the defence. Even still, Howard remains one of the best goalkeepers to grace Goodison Park since the prime of Neville Southall – Nigel Martyn being the other name on that very shortlist.
There are numerous other runners and riders to be named Everton’s Player of the Season – John Heitinga has recovered from an uncertain start to become one of the first names on Moyes’ teamsheet – hopefully the Dutchman’s ankle injury is not too serious – while Phil Jagielka has been imperious since returning from injury. Marouane Fellaini looked a shoo-in between December and February as the Belgian entered performances of rare quality but injury curtailed his season far too soon. Leon Osman also had a spell of divine showings and has kept his game at a high standard since the turn of the year while Pienaar is reliably excellent every week – and was a lone bright spot in the dark autumn days. Meanwhile, Louis Saha’s 15 goals have been vital to Everton’s cause but the Frenchman remains frustratingly inconsistent, ruling him out of contention but that there are so many claimants to the Blues’ top in-house honour speaks volumes about the season as a whole.
If Europa League qualification truly is beyond Everton now – and it does appear Portsmouth’s financial problems are the Toffees’ last hope – then there is little left in the season to play for other than pride. With four winnable games to come – away at Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, home to Fulham and Portsmouth – Everton could reasonably expect to take 10 points from a possible 12, with the trip to the Potteries the most difficult tie on the horizon. It is not impossible for Villa to trip up to the extent Everton require – the Villans have tough games at home to Birmingham City and away at Manchester City to come – but it is hoping against hope for the Toffees’ to overtake the Midlanders now. Instead, Everton must concentrate on keeping their momentum through until the end of the season and addressing the squad’s deficiencies promptly in the summer – but as the long list of Player of the Season contenders shows, those deficiencies are not exactly plentiful.
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