If you love the English Premier League, you probably love it unconditionally.
You love the relegation battles, you love the ups and downs of the squads in the FA Cup, and you might even love the consistency of the big clubs.
I speculated in this space a few weeks ago about whether Arsenal was still Arsenal (so it seems) and whether Liverpool was still Liverpool (not so much). But what of the clubs not named Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, or Chelsea?
Notice, I didn’t even mention Tottenham, who’ve posted top five finishes in the Premiership the past three campaigns and had some successful results in Europe, yet blew what may have been their best chance to finish third late last season due to inconsistent play, and perhaps some of the turmoil surrounding then-skipper Harry Redknapp.
Only twice in the last seventeen seasons have one of the “other fifteen” cracked the top three in the final table: Newcastle in 2003, and then up-and-coming (and certainly dynamic as well) Leeds United in 2000.
Look, it’s really early and it’s absolutely so easy to overreact to five or six matches in a season of 38. Spurs were awful the entire fall of 2008 and grabbed only two points in eight games before hiring Redknapp, but they were never ever at risk of being relegated. Liverpool certainly isn’t in danger of going down right now and it’s inconceivable they could be in the years to come, though finishing outside the top eight is a very real possibility, if not probability.
But can it go the other way? Is there a team that could threaten a bigger club for third place?
Perhaps one, and that team is Everton, though it’s a remarkable long shot. Saying that, Everton has all the basics and even the fancy accessories to earn a Europa League spot and flirt with the top five. But they’d need every break in the book to stay where they are right now, third in the table.
So what works for Everton and what works against them?
1. They showed right away they can play with the big boys by earning a victory over Manchester United in their season opener at Goodison Park. The Toffees can also clearly score, as indicated by their two goals against a stingy Newcastle United in their only draw so far.
2. They’re done with the Capital One Cup! Seriously, this is a very good thing. It’s one thing for the large and wealthy clubs to compete in this Cup because their substitutes and reserves are strong or promising enough to keep advancing, that most teams don’t place a lot of emphasis on this competition. Getting dusted off by Leeds earlier this week will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, and that will hold true whether they push for a Champions League qualification spot or a Europa League berth.
3. There’s no major transfer target at the club. Things can always change but Everton seems fundamentally sound, not in any type of cash crunch, and can ward off advances on Phil Jagielka, Steven Pienaar and Tim Howard, who looks thrilled to be ascending back to one of the more trusted ‘keepers in the Premier League.
4. They’re very much under the radar. Outside of the FA Cup, this is Everton’s main goal, to maintain the roster, maybe even shore it up in January, and qualify for Europe next season. In fact, I truly believe that the vast majority of fans, while still enjoying the retro-romanticism of the FA Cup, would rather their club be a factor in Europe, especially if it’s the Champions League. If you’re not going to outright win the FA Cup, and it is still only the big clubs that seem to win in, making inroads into the Champions League group stage would put Everton on the map. Regardless of what Spurs supporters say, they’re a far more well-known commodity to gain players from other nations due to the television exposure of the tournament and the money to spend than it is to advance to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
1. They’ll need results against big clubs consistently and that’s hard to achieve. Beating Manchester United at home in August is one thing. Can they hold Manchester City to two draws? Can they beat Chelsea? Requirements like those are the minimum to get where you need to go, and even to be in the top five because clubs like Newcastle and Arsenal don’t feel there’s any excuse to finish outside of the Champions League zone.
2. They’ve already been inconsistent. They beat Manchester United but then went on to lose to West Brom, suggesting they are not ready for prime time and the bright lights.
3. They won’t be able to outspend the big clubs in January even if they need players. This team is going to hold the collective feet of Jagielka, Howard, Leighton Baines and Belgian international Marouane Fellaini to the fire. It’s on them. It’s very unlikely that Everton, unless they’re ravaged by injuries, would make a “go for it” type signing and spend money in an overpriced atmosphere.
4. They’re Everton. There’s no evidence to suggest they can end where they need to be. History’s against them, and saying that, it was against Leeds doing what they did in the late 1990s, and even against a club like Blackburn winning the Premier League back in 1994-95. Some got awfully excited about Newcastle starting strong in the first ten weekends last season, only to see the Magpies suffer a major slippage in the early spring and finish fifth.