Everton’s chances of a return to Europa League football took a heavy blow in defeat to Manchester United on Saturday and could be killed off in all but name if Bolton Wanderers win at Fulham on Wednesday evening. But that the Toffees are even in contention for a top six finish at this late stage of the Premier League season is a huge turnaround from the start of the campaign.
Winless until October, four goalless games in the opening six fixtures and only four goals scored – including three in one match – did not suggest a charge towards European competition would be forthcoming. Indeed, after six games, Everton were dead last in the table. That last game of Everton’s horrific half-dozen was a 0-0 at Craven Cottage, the site of the match that will essentially decide who contests the shootout for the final qualification place, Bolton or Liverpool. If the Wanderers win they will leapfrog Everton and go within three points of Liverpool, albeit with an inferior goal difference. Everton would drop to eighth, five points adrift of their local rivals.
Whoever claims sixth spot will only reach Europe if Manchester City win the FA Cup but fail to qualify for the Champions League, and while Roberto Mancini’s men are heavy favourites to finish fourth, sitting four points clear of Tottenham Hotspur, more unexpected collapses have happened. Clinching sixth place is therefore essential to be in with even a chance of competing in next year’s Europa League. The outcome of the meeting between Fulham and Bolton impacts on both Merseyside clubs – Everton more directly but also Liverpool, who will have one or the other breathing down their necks as the season comes to an end. Should Fulham and Bolton draw it will be advantage Liverpool, but considering Everton and Fulham have often drawn this season – 14 and 15 for each side respectively – and Bolton have drawn 10 games themselves, a point apiece would appear a likely outcome.
If Everton had converted a handful of their tally of draws this season into wins, they would be snapping at Liverpool’s heels far more than they are now. Had the 2-2 draw at Anfield been an Everton victory there would be two points between the sides, not five, just one of the “what might have been” stories of Everton’s season. Last season Everton drew 13 times through the whole of the 38-game struggle, already eclipsed this year with four games remaining, and the reason for so many draws is seen in the goals for column, only 47 for 2010/11 compared to 60 for 2009/10. Barring a late flurry of more than three goals a game, Everton will not match last season’s number, while goals conceded is on course to be slightly improved – 42 so far, 49 last term. Conceding more than two goals a game over the final four is not impossible, but equally as unlikely as Everton snatching sixth place.