From the depths of despair to elation in the space of six weeks. No team has taken more points than Everton in their last six matches. They have climbed from a position six points ahead of the bottom three to the same points behind Swansea in eighth. Roberto Martinez’s side have conceded just two goals in that run. This is a striking change in fortunes.
Against Manchester United, Everton were at their rampant best. They are a team most effective when buzzing around their opponents, nicking the ball before embarking on the counter. With Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas on the wings either side of Romelu Lukaku, the potential for counter-attacking success is there. The home side scored three times against United, but could easily have added to that total. On more than one occasion only a wayward final ball or poor touch cost them more goals.
The cynics will remark that there is little to be gained from finding form in March rather than August, but Martinez will be relieved to get supporters back on side. Many were starting to doubt the Spaniard’s ability to survive a difficult second season.
Evertonians will also be thankful to avoid the burden of Europa League football next season. Until the club gets the funds or owner to invest in a squad capable of competing on four fronts, Europe will always be more of a fly in the ointment than perfect tonic. If Spurs and Liverpool found it hard to cope, it’s no wonder Everton have too.
With the whispers of relegation trouble firmly silenced, thoughts now turn to Everton’s ability to retain their highest-profile players this summer. It promises to be a difficult task.
As I said in 16 Conclusions, Terry is the perfect defender for Jose Mourinho’s strategy of strangulation. At 34 he remains the best central defender in England, his concentration and ability showing no sign of waning. The decline in Rio Ferdinand since turning 33 only adds to Terry’s deserved praise.
Against Arsenal, Terry was as close to impeccable as is realistically possible against such a difficult opponent. Arsene Wenger spoke of Olivier Giroud’s progression into an “animal”, but Terry reduced the Frenchman to a puppy dog. Giroud managed two shots and created no chances. He had just 35 touches in 90 minutes, stifled by the excellence of his opponent.
Terry made 13 clearances, more than any other player on the pitch. That is his bread and butter, of course, but it is his reading of the game that has so improved with age. Previously renowned as the king of the last-ditch tackle, Terry’s positional sense now makes that a misnomer. Against Arsenal, Terry didn’t even attempt a tackle. He has committed just ten fouls this season.
The best attacking player for the best team and the champions elect. That’s the sure-fire recipe for being named Player of the Year.
On April 26, 2014, Kane made his fifth Premier League start, for Tottenham away at Stoke City.
A year later to the day, and Kane was crowned the PFA’s Young Player of the Year, chosen in second place for the main award. He has scored 30 club goals this season, and also scored within 79 seconds of making his England debut. Sometimes dreams do come true.
“It is amazing. It is a very proud moment for myself and my family – hopefully the first of many to come,” said Kane, with a grin that looked like it would never leave his face. “It is incredible, an incredible feeling. A lot has changed but I have always believed in my ability and have been waiting for a chance to express myself. I didn’t think it would go as quickly as it has done but I have managed to ride the wave and the season has got better and better.”
There is an air of unsustainability to Kane’s rise but, for now, that matters not. Whatever happens for the rest of his career, 2014/15 will always be the most magical of seasons for Tottenham’s local boy done good.
Congratulations to Hull City’s travelling support for their perseverance. They finally saw their side’s second away win since the opening day, as Hull eased their relegation fears.
With Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United still to come, Hull are far from safe. They sit a point outside the bottom three and face four of the top seven in the next month. But, after a lifeless run of form, there are reasons to smile. It’s felt like the KC’s sunshine has been banned of late. That’s the way (they like it).
The miracle run goes on – are Leicester like the Sunderland of 2013/14? That question may well be answered in the last two games of the season, when Nigel Pearson’s side face Sunderland and QPR.
Survival is far from assured, therefore, but Leicester have given themselves a chance. That’s more than many (me included) predicted a month ago. The appropriate punned headline is ‘For Fox Sake’ rather than ‘For Fox Ache’.
After a run of 1,245 minutes without a Premier League goal, Pelle now has three in his last 189 minutes.
The striker’s headed second against Tottenham was a thing of majesty, a reminder as to what Pelle offers when provided with the correct service. Many Southampton supporters will tell you that lack of assistance was most to blame for the Italian’s goal drought.
The only side in the top five to score and the only side in the top seven to win. City may not be doing it with much grace or panache, but winning is all that matters.
Avoiding a Champions League play-off round is vital in avoiding late-season fatigue; City are now two points ahead of their Manchester rivals in fourth.
One of the best performances in defensive midfield I have witnessed this season. Forget McCarthy’s early goal, for that was merely an enjoyable bonus. Instead, praise is reserved for the way the Irishman shackled and strangled first Marouane Fellaini and then Wayne Rooney.
McCarthy’s discipline was the most impressive facet of his game, stopping himself from venturing forward and being caught out of position. He completed just 20 passes in 90 minutes, but won possession seven times, more than any other Everton outfielder. He also blocked three shots, marshalling the holding midfield area alongside Gareth Barry. The two players covered over 22km between them.
McCarthy was an expensive purchase for Roberto Martinez, costing £13m to prise him from his old club Wigan. Still only 24, there must be a question whether he is ready to make the next step up. Would he be the perfect fit for Arsenal?
“I had the feeling; the warm-up was not so good,” admitted Louis van Gaal after the defeat to Everton. “In the last minutes before the game you hope you can recover and stimulate your players but then it is too late. You have to prepare the match already two or three days before and Everton have done that and they have won because of that. This is the first match that the other team have shown more fighting spirit than us.”
They are worrying comments from Van Gaal. If United supporters were happy to promote the club’s progress after victories over Manchester City and Liverpool, that pride must now be swallowed. Two steps forward, and at least another two back.
It must be a concern that Van Gaal is still struggling to motivate his players. Is that not precisely his task? What happened to the “improvement every week” the Dutchman claimed after the Chelsea loss last Saturday? Does focus dissipate so quickly?
“United were toothless, and that is being kind,” was Gary Neville’s assessment. “I didn’t really see them try and dribble past a player, make any forward runs. At times they were not getting enough men in the box and the final pass was poor. It is the worst I have seen United play for five or six weeks.”
Neville has covered most bases there, but it’s worth reiterating just how lethargic and laboured United were in midfield. Daley Blind looks incapable of acting as suitable back-up to Michael Carrick, whilst Ander Herrera and Juan Mata both seemed shadows of their recent selves. They were overrun and outfought.
United will still qualify for the top four (the Liverpool section below contains my reasoning for such confidence), but there is no doubt that the miserable defeat at Goodison curbs the club’s enthusiasm. This was the first time since December 2013 (and the David Moyes era) that United have lost consecutive league games. That was also the last time they have gone two games without scoring. As I say, at least another two steps back.
Angel Di Maria
Your side is 2-0 down at half-time and shorn of all creativity and penetration. You cost £59.8m, a British transfer record. Your manager instead brings on a striker without a shot on target since January, and waits another 20 minutes to bring you on. It’s not a good look.
Given 27 minutes to impress, he promptly lost possession 11 times and missed the target with his only shot.
The Argentinean did at least create two chances, but it’s impossible not to be disappointed by his current output. The relationship between player and club will quickly be soured if Di Maria continues to stray and stay so far from centre stage.
Ahead of his return to Goodison Park, much of the pre-match hype concerned the rejuvenation of Fellaini in Manchester United’s midfield. This was a return to the bad old days of last season.
“Joining United was new for me,” the Belgian said in midweek. “It was difficult. A lot of people criticised me, but people they forget quickly I played five great seasons and one year. Some people said I lost my football. It’s not that. OK, I lost a bit of my confidence.”
“I asked him today and he said ‘it’s a game’, but I think he doesn’t want to admit it,” Van Gaal said before the match. The manager was speaking with regards to the added emotions when returning to a former club. “He is very dry in his answers but I believe it shall be a special game for him.” Maybe the occasion just got too much.
Unfortunately for Fellaini, improved form means increased scrutiny. Everton’s players swarmed around him as soon as he received the ball. The Belgian has transformed from the Invisible Man to a wanted man. ‘Stop him playing, and you stop Van Gaal’s United playing,’ was the pre-match message.
Everton’s midfielders snapped at Fellaini’s heels and ebbed away at his confidence again. The abiding memory of the first half was of the midfielder stood or sat with outstretched arms, appealing to either referee or teammates to cut him some slack. None came.
Fellaini lasted only 45 minutes, his half-time substitution raising jeers from the home crowd. In that time the Belgian missed a glorious chance to equalise and failed to create a single chance. More worryingly, in one half he committed double the amount of fouls of any other player in the entire match. His substitution was to avoid an inevitable red card as well as an indication of his poor performance.
Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool
Rodgers would have been forgiven for dropping Roberto Martinez a line on Sunday evening to congratulate him for his victory over Manchester United. Everton certainly did their bit for inter-Merseyside relations, stopping Liverpool’s top-four fire from fizzling out.
If Liverpool can win at Hull on Tuesday, four becomes the magic number. Four games left, four points behind United, for a top-four place. Saturday’s result at West Brom made it four points from four games for Rodgers and Liverpool.
There is no doubt that the 0-0 draw at the Hawthorns was a missed opportunity. Should United beat the same side at Old Trafford next weekend, Liverpool will be a minimum of four points behind them with three games remaining. Given their better goal difference, United would only need four further points to secure fourth (I’m getting tired of typing the word ‘four’ now). That’s also assuming Liverpool win every one of their matches. Forget the faux-generation of excitement, the race looks run.
Rodgers was, naturally, in buoyant spirits after Saturday’s 0-0: “I thought they were excellent. We didn’t get the win, but our overall game was outstanding. I was pleased how the players kept their patience and kept working the ball. I give credit to the players because they came out after a difficult result and performance and showed great confidence. They defended well and attacked with all the invention and creativity as we possibly could.” Sometimes you do have to go back and double-check the result when the Liverpool manager speaks post-match.
Rodgers’ latest missive has been to temper expectations for next season. “If we can regroup, get some quality starters in for the summer, we can go on another great adventure next season and hopefully get back in there [the top four],” was his assessment after the match.
A reminder, then, that he said this in January: “The reality was, with so many changes, we were not going to win the league this season. I believe we will be ready to challenge for the title next year. This year was about targeting the top four and the cups.” From “will” be challenging for the title to “hopefully” getting back into the top four. What a difference three months makes.
The “if” that precedes his first statement is also important, as Rodgers has conceded that attracting players may be difficult without the lure of Champions League football. The manager spoke of transfer targets who see Liverpool as “the project right for them to learn and develop”. That all sounds like a euphemism for buying below the top bracket. Is that not precisely what created this season’s slump? Liverpool lost their superstar, and misspent the proceeds.
There is no doubt that Rodgers will keep up his positive spiel, but the PR and bluster only muddies the water of how the club itself views the Northern Irishman’s tenure. Is Rodgers the manager who took Liverpool back into the Champions League, or the man who limply squandered the resultant opportunity to establish Liverpool as a top-four force? Only time will tell, but Rodgers must be aware that the bank of goodwill is running out of funds.
As Sarah Winterburn pointed out, Matt Taylor’s missed penalty is not the moment that will send Burnley down. The damage had already been done.
Like Blackpool before them, Sean Dyche’s side have been a breath of fresh air. Whereas Ian Holloway’s side made friends via their effervescent attacking style, Burnley have done so through hard work and unwavering commitment. A change always feels refreshing but, like Blackpool, this will be the shortest of stays.
The surprise is not that Burnley will be relegated, but that they ever stayed competitive for so long. That sounds incredibly patronising, but it’s intended as a compliment, I promise.
Asked on Friday whether he thought he was in contention for the Newcastle job on a full-time basis, Carver was in confident mood.
“I feel in contention, absolutely – why wouldn’t I?” he said. “I’m not a defeatist. I’m a positive guy and I’m not going to write myself off. The club know the situation. A lot of people might write me off. A lot of ex-players and pundits might – they’re entitled to do that. They don’t see the work I do every day to prepare the team, but people on the inside do.”
No John, but those ex-players and pundits (and fans, who Carver failed to mention) do see Newcastle’s performances on the pitch. On Saturday, Carver oversaw the club’s seventh straight league defeat, their longest run of losses for 38 years. Even during the relegation season of 2008/09, the players displayed a modicum of fight and pride.
After the defeat to Swansea, Carver was close to breaking point, angry at the abuse he had received from supporters. “The club has to do something about it,” he said. “It was personal stuff. It’s quite difficult to actually stand in that technical area and get abused the way I was abused without any protection from the sidelines. I’m not going to stand there and be abused. I’m not accepting it.” After the game, supporters alleged on social media that Carver had sworn at them and offered them out for a fight. This is a managerial spell reaching parody status.
Nobody can doubt Carver’s will to succeed, but he is an emphatic reminder that heart and desire are minor ingredients of, not the recipe for, success. He is a helpless pawn in Newcastle’s slide down the table. He is the fan-turned-manager, incapable of succeeding as the latter and bridges burned with the former. He demands as much respect from his players as a 60-year-old substitute geography teacher trying to be best mates with all of the students before screaming at them when they misbehave.
Would it be worth putting a pot of pease pudding on the touchline instead to see if that makes any difference next weekend? It’d be an interesting experiment at least, which is more than you can say about bringing Gabriel Obertan and Sammy Ameobi on at half-time to try and change a game.
Charlie Austin and QPR
Football can be a cruel mistress. Austin’s debut season in the top flight has been successful beyond his most optimistic ambitions, but his missed penalty on Saturday hammered a final nail in QPR’s Premier League coffin.
Even if Leicester and Hull lose their midweek games in hand, Chris Ramsey’s side have four matches to make up a deficit of four points. Their next two league fixtures are at Anfield and the Etihad. The fat lady is practising her scales.
A defeat at Manchester City is no reason for panic, and Aston Villa were incredibly unfortunate to lose at the Etihad. After pulling the game back to 2-2, Christan Benteke was incorrectly flagged offside before being brought down by Joe Hart. That’s galling enough without City going down to the other end of the pitch and scoring the winner.
“It is onside. It is a penalty and a sending-off,’ said Tim Sherwood. “You get some, you don’t get others. At this stage, it is difficult, and I have a lump in my throat when I say that. I know the fight is there, so is the ability. If we perform like that, we will be okay.”
One can understand Sherwood’s concern. Victories for Hull and Leicester puts Villa two points ahead of the bottom three. The three sides directly below them all have a game in hand. Sherwood is relying on the inability of others in order to stay out of danger.
Fortunately for Villa, their run-in should see them safe. Everton are the next visitors to Villa Park, followed by a David Cameron derby on May 9. Four points from those two games and survival will surely be ensured.
A draw at Stoke would usually be something to celebrate for a team towards the foot of the table. In the mad scramble for Premier League survival, it only made things stickier for Sunderland.
A marathon is all about timing. For the first time this season, Dick Advocaat’s side are in the bottom three. Their greatest hope is that the home fixture against Leicester on May 16 becomes winner takes all.