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"It could be any of those four, but I think it will be between United and Liverpool," says Gary Neville. The bookies concur - making Everton 13/2 outsiders to finish in the Champions League places - and we suspect the SunSport computer would also agree after being 'especially formulated'. The grounds for ruling out Everton? Well, they're Everton, aren't they?
But those grounds - based on history and assumptions - are irrelevant because this Everton side is different to what has come before. In term of personnel (only two members of Roberto Martinez's first-choice front six were regulars under David Moyes), style (Martinez has added 4% to pass completion and possession averages) and ambition (Martinez has talked consistently and with a straight face about Champions League qualification), this is a new Everton and should be judged as such.
Some things remain. Everton are still - that 4-0 drubbing by Liverpool aside - defensively well-drilled, they are notoriously hard to beat at home and they have a squad so thin that they're only ever one injury away from a Johnny Heitinga or an Antolin Alcaraz. But too many other things have changed to dismiss their challenge out of hand. Like assuming Arsenal will drop away 'because they're Arsenal', it's lazy.
Martinez took just months to do what David Moyes had failed to achieve throughout his Everton tenure by winning at Manchester United. They also drew praise from Arsene Wenger after dominating the opening exchanges of a 1-1 draw at the Emirates and beat Jose Mourinho's Chelsea at Goodison Park, where only Sunderland have bizarrely emerged victorious this season.
A club that had fostered an inferiority complex is now picking up more points against top-half sides than any other team barring Chelsea and Manchester City. In stark contrast, Manchester United can only claim Arsenal as a top-eight scalp this season and yet it is assumed that they will magically find the kind of form that Everton have been displaying all season. Our collective muscle memory lifts United's chances higher than Everton's largely because it has always been so.
Saturday was massive for Everton. On the back of a defeat to Liverpool that saw a weakened defence destroyed by a ruthless counter-attacking display, another loss to Aston Villa would have been soundtracked by the sound of people muttering about small squads, no plan B and wheels falling off. Martinez responded with boldness by taking off Ross Barkley at half-time and then his right-back after 70 minutes, and his players responded in kind. A 1-0 deficit became a 2-1 victory in the 11 minutes it took for Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas to score.
Perhaps it's names like Naismith that make people suspicious that this challenge can be maintained but in the absence of Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu, Martinez has turned to fringe players and not found them wanting. While Brendan Rodgers looked to the bench and ignored his attacking fringe players at the weekend, Martinez looked and was buoyed. The squad may be thin but it was sturdy enough to beat Villa when numbers were so slight that Luke Garbutt was recalled from a loan spell at Colchester to make up the bench.
On Sunday they face Tottenham in what will surely be billed as a battle between the foreign manager with his fancy philosophy and the gung-ho, win-your-individual-battles simplicity of Englishman Tim Sherwood. Win that game and we would expect the new, improved Everton to be mentioned in top-four talk as more than an afterthought.
They're a better team than Spurs, that's for damn sure. We may have some better individuals (I'm sure Everton wouldn't mind having Vertonghen or Eriksen handy) but they're a better outfit overall, especially when they're all fit. What I wouldn't give to have Coleman and Baines...- harry hotspur