26 March 2014

Everton in the rearview

Call it the devil's arithmetic. We now have to keep more than one anxious eye on those behind us, as those ahead of us look to be pulling away. Our own fade, which has seen us fail to win consecutive matches since beating Fulham and then Coventry in January, means that a once-possible tilt at the top of the table is now improbably, if not outright impossible, and we now have to focus on winning, not to keep up with Liverpool but to stay ahead of Everton. If we fall out of the top four but win the FA Cup, we will on one hand end the infamous trophy-drought—but miss out on the prestige of competing in the Champions League. On the other hand, if we secure a top-four finish but fail to win the FA Cup, the trophyless monkey on our backs sprouts a second head and starts dry-humping. It's not an either/or proposition, of course, as we could very easily finish 4th or higher and win the FA Cup—but we could also stumble to 5th and lose the FA Cup. Shockingly, there are some calling for precisely that as it will, in their minds, rid us once and for all of the hopelessly inept manager they've been forced to endure.

On a positive note, we have the idea that no team that has 60 points after 31 matches has finished outside the top four. We have 63 points after 31 matches. So there. Done. Dusted. Let's move on to—what's that? Everton has 57 points after 30 matches? Hm. By the same logic that assures us that we'll finish in the top four, so too will Everton. There's just enough wiggle-room in the logic to assure us. After all, 60 points is, by definition, not more than 60 points, so we're still safe. Why doesn't it feel safe?

Our recent form compared to that of Everton has a lot to do with it, as do the remaining fixtures for each club. Heck, by the time the whistle blows at Goodison Park, we might be level on points with Everton—who will still have a game in hand. With us hosting Man City and Everton visiting Craven Cottage, this weekend, who's more likely to grow a pair, us or Fulham? We're stretched to a breaking
point with injuries, debilitating losses, and a restive fanbase that seems more than eager to hoist the manager on his own petard. After all, the financial stability and youth development that have been Arsène's stock in trade now look to be his own undoing, as young, overworked players are falling one by one, leaving us even more short-handed and threadbare for the run-in. We haven't won consecutive matches since January, and our current form over the last six Prem matches doesn't offer much in the way of reassurance. By that standard, we're a mid-table team while Everton are top-four.

Thankfully, that's not how the Prem table works, but it's still a stark reminder of how our fortunes have slid. With seven matches left on our schedule, and eight on Everton's, it's not too early to look ahead to our trip to Goodison Park as well as to each club's remaining fixtures. Our magic number—the combination of points Everton drop and we gain to keep us in fourth—stands at 19. For example, should Everton draw at Fulham, the magic number drops to 18. If we defeat Man City, the number drops to 16. Once we get past Man City and Everton, arguably the toughest fixtures we have left, we still have five matches to play—West Ham, at Hull, Newcastle, West Brom, and at Norwich. These are winnable but only give us 15 of the 19 points we need. By comparison, Everton will have six matches to play after they face us—at Sunderland, Crystal Place, Man U, at Southampton, Man City, at Hull. Depending on what happens this weekend and next, we may still need Everton to drop four points from these six matches. They've been strong at home (11W, 3D, 1L; +16GD) but only average away (5W, 6D, 4; 0GD). In a sense, then, their game in hand may not work in their favor because it represents points not yet in hand. There are too many permutations to suss out, but you see for yourself the path that each club has to travel.

Whereas Everton are daring to dream of their highest Prem finish since 2005, we now appear to dread our lowest finish since 1996. Our ragged form, our haggard countenances, our waning fortunes...it all seems like everything is slipping away, and in a season that seemed so full of promise, so full of dreams of potential glory, it seems so shabby to fall back on grim maths to assess our chances. Rather than the heady optimism of November and December, even of January, we now sit with abacus and slide-rule, weighing odds and outcomes.  Where once we were doing so to weigh whether we could win the Prem, we now do so just to see if we can finish just where we are 10 months ago.

On the other hand, reasons for hope abound. Chelsea and Citeh have more money than many countries. Liverpool and Everton have not had European commitments to sap them. Still, despite our many injuries, we've taken it all on the chin but refused to go down. We may be staggering against the ropes, we may even have faced a standing eight-count, but it's far too early to throw in the towel—even if I'm guilty of loosening my grip on it barely 12 hours ago. This season ain't over, and there's still plenty of fight left in us. Write us off at your peril, for I have a feeling that we're coming out swinging. If we're going down, it won't be without a fight.