With just three games of the Premier League season left to go, David Moyes and Everton have the opportunity to finish the season ahead of next door neighbours, Liverpool, for a second successive campaign, a feat not achieved by the Toffees for over 50 years.
While the Reds have ridden a rollercoaster of uncertainty and change on and off the pitch over the last few years, their counterparts from across Stanley Park are the model of consistency and stability. Both clubs go into this weekend’s Merseyside derby at Anfield with the confidence that they can put one over on the other in the race to be the city’s top dog.
Firstly, let’s look at Everton. This season has been one of potential met and unfulfilled all at once. For so long throughout the year, the Blues have been in with a realistic shout of finishing in the Champions League qualification places, and even now they have the very merest of hopes of coming in fourth spot if Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal manage to make a hash of their last few fixtures. The constant backslapping of Moyes for his escapades on a shoestring budget at Goodison goes to show that continually bustling up the big guns with the bulging bank balances qualifies as achievement for Everton given their meagre resources and need to wheel and deal in the transfer market. Yet, taking this continual mantra away, many Evertonians will look back on this season as an opportunity missed on two fronts.
Just look at the league table and in the D column you can see that Everton have racked up a joint league-leading total of 14 draws while in the L column, only the Manchester clubs have lost less games than the Blues. Those statistics can be interpreted in many ways and while it shows that Moyes’ men are stubborn and tough to vanquish, it also demonstrates that on far too many occasions they have lacked the killer instinct and ruthlessness needed to go the extra step and challenge the top four with any conviction. For sure Everton have nicked points when perhaps they should have lost (including the reverse of Sunday’s game when Luis Suarez had a last minute winner wrongly disallowed) but if you had watched them all season, and particularly in the first half of the year, you would certainly say that on far too many occasions they dropped points when they should have won comfortably. Far too many times they wasted goalscoring opportunity after opportunity, and hindered themselves by gifting their opponents easy goals through uncharacteristic mistakes and generosity. So should they miss out on European qualification of any kind they only have themselves to blame, not a lack of finances.
And then we come to the FA Cup. This could and perhaps should have been Everton’s year. With the uncertainty surrounding Moyes’ future, the one thing missing from his CV, assuming of course he is preparing one in readiness to look for other jobs, is a trophy to corroborate the claims of his abilities. When their golden opportunity presented itself Everton and Moyes froze, big time. They were humiliated by cup finalists, Wigan Athletic, again raising the accusation that Moyes and his players are ‘chokers’. How they must be kicking themselves knowing that they could be lining up against Manchester City in a couple of weeks at Wembley given that Moyes so obviously has had Roberto Mancini and City in his pocket in recent years ( 4 points from a possible 24 earned by City against Everton in the last 4 seasons) .
Since the Wigan debacle, Everton have frustratingly kicked back into life when there are no silver pots left up for grabs and the realistic aim of a top four finish was always just out of reach. So that really leaves Europa League and finishing above Liverpool as the consolation prizes left for the Toffees.
For the latter, finishing 6th and ahead of Everton must be considered a decent season given it is the first in such a high pressure environment for their manager, Brendan Rodgers. On the whole he has coped well. With a few tweaks here and there, the obligatory cash splashed around on players like Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho and getting a better level of performance from some of Liverpool’s already resident stars, there has been obvious improvement throughout the season after an underwhelming start. And even accounting for the loss of Suarez, the Kopites must be confident of turning over Everton on home soil where they haven’t lost to the Blues since 1999 when ‘Super’ Kevin Campbell bagged a winner in front of the Kop. Their 6-0 demolition of an absolutely appalling Newcastle United shows that they are from being a one man team and it will be one of Moyes’ most celebrated moments of his 11 year reign if he can finally lay his Anfield hoodoo to rest.
Should the result be anything other than a Liverpool win, it’s likely given the remaining two fixtures that Everton will confirm their superiority over their most bitter of rivals for another year, but if Liverpool can snatch the three points, nerves at Goodison will be jangling. If they can’t maintain their position as the current masters on Merseyside, this season must go down as one of the most frustrating in recent memory.