Everton face Aston Villa tomorrow night and to have any hope of making the Europa League next season, the Blues must leave Birmingham with three points. Villa currently sit four points clear of David Moyes’ side – with a game in hand – and should the Villains withstand Everton’s assault they would be best placed to wrap up the final European place by the end of the season.
Portsmouth’s progression to the FA Cup Final – and the crippling financial problems that should prevent them playing in Europe next season – should mean the Europa League spot they would receive moves to seventh place in the league and Everton have their sights set on beating Villa to it. To get that magnificent seventh, a performance reminiscent of Everton’s last away victory – 2-0 against Manchester City – will be required. On that March night, the Toffees entered a showing of rare class, chock full of determined defending, lung-bursting midfield running and tidy attacking play. Tim Cahill opened the scoring with a trademark header following a neat free-kick routine between Leighton Baines and Mikel Arteta while Arteta himself rounded out the victory with a sweeping finish following Cahill’s dummy and Jack Rodwell’s impressive right-wing run.
Arteta remains a doubt to feature against Villa – a groin strain hampering the Spaniard’s run-in – and the loss of the mercurial No.10 has greatly affected Everton’s recent performances. Against West Ham, Everton failed to take control of the midfield – Scott Parker in particular was dominant for the Hammers – and Arteta’s absence was a contributing factor. Keeping possession at Villa Park will be vital to Everton’s chances and having Arteta back will help no end – even a half-fit Arteta is better than none at all. Martin O’Neill looks to Stiliyan Petrov to dictate play in Villa’s favour but Arteta is more than a match for the Bulgarian and Everton’s added rest over the weekend should help them equal or better Villa’s work rate. After toiling to no avail on the much-maligned Wembley pitch, the Midlanders may be heavy-legged.
There is still a feeling of what might have been around Goodison Park – what might have been had last season’s injury problems not carried over into this, if Everton’s autumn form had been better, if they had not dropped points at home to the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City. Europa League qualification would have sufficed at the start of the season however, and given the Toffees’ poor mid-season run, having a chance of making continental competition again is a decent achievement – for much of October and November a relegation struggle looked a real possibility. New Year brought a new start – boosted by the arrival of Landon Donovan and the return of Arteta and Phil Jagielka – and now, as the season draws to a close, the Blues’ strong spring form can be rewarded by a European place and another crack at Europa League silverware.
Without victory over Villa – and the Birmingham outfit dropping points in their game in hand – Everton’s hopes of a second European trophy will have to wait another year. The heroes who won the now-defunct European Cup-Winners Cup – and the league title – in 1985 have gone down in folklore. This may be a good Everton team – indeed, some of the players currently wearing the famous royal blue are amongst the best ever, Arteta especially – but to be remembered in the same class as their peers a trophy must be delivered. It was close but no cigar last year in the FA Cup final and for all the good work David Moyes and his team have done since 2002, the Scot is as aware as anyone a trophy is what is missing from his CV. The Premier League remains out of reach but Fulham’s extraordinary run in the Europa League this year shows a cup is within Moyes’ grasp – few would argue Fulham are better placed for success than Everton but it is the Londoners on the verge of a European final.
The Europa League represents a viable trophy target for Everton but first they must ensure they get there. The Villa game represents Everton’s toughest task of the run-in – with trips to Blackburn Rovers and Stoke to come as well as home dates with Fulham and Portsmouth – but a win on Wednesday night could give the Blues another cup to chase next year.