Everton travel to Southampton on Saturday with fourth placed Arsenal and a Champions League spot firmly in their sights.
A mixed 10 days when a cruising home win against Manchester United followed a sickening 3-2 defeat to Crystal Palace has left Everton’s Champions League destiny in the hands of Arsenal.
The Gunners are one point ahead of the Toffees meaning as long as they equal or better Everton’s last three results they will finish in fourth place.
But Roberto Martinez has a great chance to pile the pressure onto Arsene Wenger’s side this weekend. Should Everton win at St Mary’s on Saturday they will leap-frog Arsenal who don’t play till Monday when Newcastle visit the Emirates Stadium.
48 hours of knowing they must win could be too much for the Gunners and Evertonians must rely on either Newcastle, West Brom or Norwich to take points from their top four rivals.
Sunday’s 2-0 dismantling of David Moyes’ United (no longer his, mind) was as comfortable a win as Blues have witnessed in a long time, if not in many fan’s lifetimes. But the three points came at a price, with Kevin Mirallas -who scored the second goal in a fantastic display- ruled out for the season with a muscle tear.
Similarly Sylvain Distin was forced off at half-time with a hamstring injury and may miss Everton’s end of season run-in. Antolin Alcaraz deputised comfortably in the second half and with Phil Jagielka still not quite ready for a return, the Paraguayan should start alongside John Stones.
Southampton currently sit three places and 20 points behind Everton in the table but their football has seen them topping the likeability charts (if such a horrific thing should ever exist).
The Saints have taken the plaudits for a season of attractive, open and attacking football with the likes of Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana and Ricky Lambert spearheading a side that has scored freely. They’ve netted 50 times this season, the eight best in the league and only slightly bettered by Manchester United (56) and Tottenham Hotspur (51) above them.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side have only been out of the top 10 once back in September and since December they have yo-yo’d between eighth and ninth. Never in danger of relegation, but never doing enough to put themselves in the frame for European qualification, when the spotlight has fallen on St Mary’s it’s focus has been on the quality of football and the bright young English talent on show.
Lallana is expected to go to Brazil for the World Cup in June while Lambert, who has scored 12 league goals this term, is more likely to find himself with a seat on that same plane after leading scorer Rodriguez’s season was cruelly cut-short due to a cruciate knee ligament injury.
Morgan Schneiderlin, Kelvin Davis and Maya Yoshida join the 24 year-old on the sidelines, part of a contingent who may not feature again this season. However, the likes of Luke Shaw, Victor Wanyama, James Ward-Prowse and Nathaniel Clyne ensure the Saints still have enough youthful exuberance in the side to help the south-coast side finish the season on a high.
But form has taken a dip as the season draws to a close and they have not won in their last three games, sitting 17th in the overall form league table. Last weekend’s goalless draw at Aston Villa followed a dismal 1-0 reverse to relegation fodder Cardiff City at home and with nothing left to play for, there’s the feeling the players’ minds are already elsewhere.
Likely Line Ups
Everton– Howard; Baines, Alcaraz, Stones, Coleman; Barry, McCarthy; Osman, Naismith, McGeady; Lukaku
Southampton– Boruc; Shaw, Lovren Fonte, Clyne; Wanyama, Cork, Ward-Prowse, Davis, Lallana; Lambert
Leon Osman- should the midfielder make his 26th start of the season, Osman will remain the only player to feature in every one of Everton’s league games this season. With three goals and three assists to his name, the 32 year-old can hardly be said to be leading the way in terms of stats, but his influence should not be under-stated.
The Billinge-born academy graduate missed only two league games in David Moyes’ last season in charge and while the numbers would suggest he has been edged out by the emergence of Ross Barkley and the acquisitions of James McCarthy and Gareth Barry in the middle of the park, Osman has relished a new role under Roberto Martinez.
The Catalan had nothing but praise for Osman in his Friday press-conference, claiming the tricky midfielder still has a future at the club and is pleased at his ability to adapt to a new role. He said:
“I know he wants to play every single minute (…) but it’s important we keep him fresh from game to game and I think he can go on for another three to four seasons at the highest level.”
“Ossie’s a thinker. He takes things in so quickly that he allows the sessions we have every day to really be effective. That’s why he’s a vital part of our club”.
“He’s been a remarkable servant to the club and it’s fitting that in his testimonial year he’s been involved in every league game so far”.
Whether he starts or is thrown in as a substitute, Osman is likely to have an impact. His incredible close control, low centre of gravity and balance allows him to take the ball on in tight spaces high up the pitch (Osman has a passing accuracy this season of 88%, his highest ever season total).
And while the raw pace and power of Lukaku, Barkley, Mirallas, Duelofeu and McGeady has blown sides away this season, it’s the calm, carefully considered approach of Osman which gives Everton a killing alternative, especially when combined with Baines’ wing-back play.
Adam Lallana- if Osman’s influence for Everton has gone under the radar somewhat, Lallana has been on red-alert.
A promising first season in the Premier League in 2012/13 led to an England call up in September 2013 and his stock has since risen in a blossoming second term under Pochettino.
Lallana has started every Premier League game for the Saints, scoring nine times and laying on assists for team mates on six occasions. Mooted for high-profile moves to some of the Premier League’s top teams (not least Manchester United) the 25 year-old is being tipped to go to the World Cup as part of Roy Hodgson’s squad.
The attacking midfielder may not be the quickest, but his skill and technique, his passing range and his keen eye for goal have rocketed him into national conciousness and having already scored against Everton this season, don’t bet against Lallana having a say in the visitor’s quest for Champions League qualification.
Last Time Out
Everton 2-1 Southampton, Goodison Park, 29th December 2013
The Blues’ last game of 2013 should have been cause for celebration. With just the Saints and Sunderland left to beat at Goodison in order to complete a whole calendar year unbeaten at home, defeat to the Black Cats on Boxing Day left Evertonians a bit deflated.
But an early Seamus Coleman thunder-strike set Everton on their way to three points, with Romelu Lukaku getting the decisive goal after Adam Lallana’s leveller.