By Chris Harris
If any team has reason to resent the rise of the underdogs in this season's domestic cups, it's Everton.
Normally, a top-six finish would be a passport to Europe because the Big Four tend to leave their imprint on the knockout competitions. But a freakish FA Cup campaign and a rare trophy for Tottenham in the Carling Cup has left the Toffees and their fellow Uefa Cup wannabes squabbling over just one berth in the Premier League. This year sixth is nowhere; fifth is everything.
Everton are in pole position at the moment, three points clear
of Aston Villa with two games left. But Villa have a superior goal
difference and - on paper at least - an easier run-in. David
Moyes' side probably need at least a point against Arsenal on
Sunday to keep themselves in the driving seat. And they will have
to do it without their two most creative players, Tim Cahill and
Mikel Arteta, both of whom are injured.
We asked Dave Prentice, Chief Sports Writer of the Liverpool Echo, for an Everton perspective ahead of Sunday's big game. Read on for his views on Everton's campaign, their outstanding performers this season, Cahill's costly absence, the likely line-up at the weekend and Merseyside support for Arsenal in the Champions League.
THE STORY SO FAR
"It is very much touch and go for Everton and you'd probably say we were second favourites at the moment. Aston Villa have the easier run-in so it's imperative that Everton take at least a point from Arsenal on Sunday. That's not normally something you'd expect them to do but Everton did draw at the Emirates last season so they are absolutely desperate to repeat that if they can. Villa have a better goal difference but they didn't three weeks ago. Everton were in the driving seat then but Villa went on a mad scoring spree and have edged one goal ahead. A point against Arsenal would mean victory over Newcastle on the final day would ensure Everton finished fifth but if they lose at Arsenal they are relying on favours from Wigan and West Ham. So it's all to play for.
"It's been a difficult season to sum up. In normal circumstances it would have been great but expectation levels have risen so much by challenging Liverpool for fourth place all the way through so the fact that Everton have fallen away means the season is ending on a bit of flat note. The Uefa Cup exit against Fiorentina really took it out of Everton. They had a really good run but went to Fiorentina and lost 2-0 after their only bad performance in the entire European campaign. Then they produced a magnificent performance in the second leg, they won 2-0 but it should have been a lot more, and ended up going out on penalties. Psychologically that seems to have taken a lot out of the players but there were signs in the 2-2 draw against Villa last weekend that they were getting some of their early-season form back."
PLAYER OF THE SEASON?
"Joleon Lescott without a shadow of a doubt. He has been monumental all season as a centre half. He fully deserved his England call-up. He has been shoved out to left back on quite a few occasions and has played equally as well. Yakubu has also had a great season up front, like a number of player he has falled away in the last month or so. But Lescott's consistency has been unparalleled all the way through. Tim Howard has had a solid season, Leon Osman has been bright, but you can't look beyond Lescott."
"Tim Cahill is injured again and he is such a crucial player. As you'll remember he scored at the Emirates last season and there is no one else in the Everton squad who can do what he does. There is no doubt that Everton look better playing a 4-5-1 with Cahill supporting the main striker. When he is not there they go with a flatter 4-4-2 but it doesn't look so effective. Cahill is so influential, as is Mikel Arteta who is also carrying an injury. He came on as a sub against Villa and didn't look match fit, so I would be surprised to see him involved at the weekend. They are two key players who have been missed."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"I think they can take another step forward by bringing in a central midfielder with physical presence. If you look at the Everton side, it does click nicely and play some good football but it's small in stature. That's one of the main reasons Leighton Baines hasn't played as much as he would have liked. He cost £6 million which is a considerably outlay for a full-back and for Everton, and you would expect him to have played more, but he hasn't because like a number of others he's small. Everton are looking for a Patrick Vieira-type of player, someone with talent and physical presence. That's a priority. It would be nice to have more competition in other areas too, at right back for example, or maybe an out-and-out wide player. Arteta and Osman have both played on the flank but neither is completely suited to that role."
"It's a fairly straightforward line-up to predict because there aren't that many players available. It will probably have to be two up front - Yakubu and Andy Johnson - which will be quite adventurous. Phil Neville will probably play right back with Joseph Yobo, Phil Jagielka and Lescott. Midfield could be Lee Carsley and maybe Osman in the middle. A lot depends on Arteta's fitness and there's a possibility that Baines might come in on the left. The problem is getting the bodies into midfield."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"As ever they are one of the neutrals' favourite teams to watch because they play some wonderful, wonderful football. I know one half of Merseyside was devastated when they went out of the Champions League to Liverpool, in the manner they did. I thought Arsenal were very unfortunate, especially in the first leg when they were awarded a stonewall penalty. They have played some great stuff all season and there aren't any obvious weak links in the side, but Arsène Wenger will have his own ideas on that. I suspect Arsenal will be challenging even closer for the Premier League title next season."