Match Preview: Fulham vs Everton- No margin for error in Champions League chase

Everton prepare for their second Premier League away match in five days when they take on relegation-threatened Fulham on Sunday.

The Blues have been soaking up the applause after Tuesday night’s sweeping 3-0 win at Newcastle, where goals from Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Leon Osman rocked St. James’ Park.

The reverberations of that victory were heard up and down the country and Roberto Martinez’s side are now considered top-four contenders. Champions League qualification still depends not only on Everton taking all but maximum points from their remaining games but on Arsenal continuing to drop points.

But just a short look ahead to the two club’s next two fixtures shows just how realistically the current six point gap could be cut to zero.

Arsenal welcome Manchester City to the Emirates and after slipping up at home to Swansea mid-week and a 6-0 drubbing away at Chelsea, the Gunners apparent implosion looks set to worsen.

Everton on the other hand are on a sensational run of four straight league wins, netting nine times and conceding just three. Few would write off their chances of returning to Merseyside with three points against a Fulham side who have only won once in their last 16 games.

Should the gap be cut to three points come Sunday afternoon, Evertonians will welcome the visit of Arsene Wenger’s side the following weekend knowing that victory would see them move level on points. The Toffees would still have a game in hand: a re-scheduled home tie against Crystal Palace.

Even if those predictions come to be, there is still much to play for, with the micro-narratives of the title, fourth place, Europa League and relegation still to weave their twists in the tale.

Everton will no doubt be favourites at Craven Cottage, but as the Blues will know only too well from their relegation scares of the 90’s, teams fighting for survival are utterly unpredictable.

The Opposition

It’s one of football’s greatest clichés that the league table doesn’t lie, so bottom placed Fulham must be the worst team in top flight, right?

Whether they officially are or aren’t is irrelevant. The fact is they are in a perilous position and are one of the favourites to plummet into the murky realms of the Football League.

The Cottagers are not shorn of talent in their ranks, but is it enough? Scott Parker, Lewis Holtby and Brede Hangeland are players too good to be playing Championship football, but there’s a sense that everyone else in the squad wouldn’t look out of place there (in fact, they would likely thrive).

But Parker’s continued absence through injury has been a big blow and the former Spurs man is expected to be missing on Sunday, while Holtby will almost certainly be re-called to his parent club at White Hart Lane when the season ends, or else find a club of higher standing (do you fancy him, Bobby?)

Even their one outstanding player, Dimitar Berbatov- a man as frustratingly inconsistent as he is full of talent- jumped ship in January. It leaves Fulham goal shy, with the inexperienced Kostas Mitroglu and the wandering Darren Bent with barely a goal between them.

And when goals don’t go for you at one end, they are almost sure to go against you at the other. Hangeland’s presence may be the only thing between Fulham leaking goals and drowning in them, but their inability to keep clean sheets is almost certain to see them capsize while not scoring themselves.

Their 1-0 win over Newcastle two weeks ago was their first shut-out in the league since 8th December. With Everton scoring six in their last two, the Cottagers will likely have to net at least twice if they’re to take all three points.

Likely Line Ups

Everton– Howard; Baines, Distin, Stones, Coleman; McCarthy, Barry; Deulofeu, Barkley, Mirallas; Lukaku

Fulham– Stockdale; Riise, Hangeland, Heitinga, Riether; Sidwell, Kvist; Kacaniklic, Holtby, Kasami; Woodrow

Key Men

Ross Barkley- the 20 year-old was in sensational form on Tuesday at St James’ Park and silenced the crowd with a stunning 70 yard run and left-foot finish. It drew comparisons to all manner of players past and present, from North-East hero and former Toffee Paul Gascoigne to Diego Maradona.

But Barkley is quietly developing (or at least he has been) his own brand of driving, purposeful football which Martinez employs to devastating effect in away games where the possession is likely to be hoarded by the home team.

Holtby- the German has been one of Fulham’s best players since arriving on loan from Spurs in January and if the West London club are going to remain in this league, they’ll need to look to the midfielder for inspiration.

A cultured passer of the ball, the ex-Schalke man and closet Evertonian looks to have something to prove after being elbowed out of Tim Sherwood’s Spurs side and has the bit between his teeth. His influence will help raise the game of those around him and it may just give Fulham a chance of staying up.

Last Time Out

Everton 4-1 Fulham, Goodison Park- 14th December 2013

Martinez’s men were riding the crest of a wave when Fulham came to Goodison Park shortly before Christmas. Having beaten Manchester United and drawn with Arsenal, both on the road within the space of five days, Everton were collecting plaudits from all corners of the country.

Osman opened the scoring but Berbatov responded in the second half from the penalty spot. Six minutes later Seamus Coleman restored the lead and Gareth Barry and Kevin Mirallas put the shine to stumbling performance.

Fulham 2-1 Everton, Craven Cottage (Capital One Cup)- 24th September 2013

Martinez fielded a mixture of first teamers and fringe players in the League Cup tie and the eventual defeat raised a slight questionable eyebrow from some sections of fans.

The Blues were in total control when Gerard Deulofeu slipped in Steven Naismith for the opening goal but lapses in concentration saw Berbatov equalise and substitute Darren Bent net the winner.

That occasion was the first real glimpse both Evertonians and Craven Cottage got of Deulofeu and if his performance on that night wowed supporters, his recent form is likely to wow them all over again.

Current Form (last six league games)

Everton- LLWWWW

Fulham- LDLLWL

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