27 April 2014

Everton gift-wrap fourth for us, let's not lose the gift-receipt.

Who'd have thunk it? Nearly three weeks ago, the post-mortems were all but written. Beaten thoroughly and embarrassingly at Everton, our fourth-place 'trophy' was gone, as much for the points at stake as for the manner of the mauling. Everton's demolition of us was almost as thorough, but even more-damaging in many ways, than more-severe losses to Man City, Chelsea, or Liverpool. What the Everton loss lacked for scoreline it more than made up for in symbolism. We looked jaded, haggard, out-played, out-Arsenaled as the Toffees attacked with verve and style, leaving us to look like yesterday's news and Everton the flavor the month. My, my, how times have changed.

After that loss, we all pulled out the slide-rule, the t-square, and the abacus and started calculating. Where and how many points would Everton have to drop while we're winning everything in sight in order for us to finish fourth? Would we have to wait until they faced Man City? Dare we get reckless enough to hope that Moyes's Man U would do us a favor? A gritty 0-1 win over Sunderland seemed to confirm that the season was breaking their way, as a late own-goal doomed the Black Cats and seemed to smile on the Toffees. Pick up the prayer-books, boys. Nope. First, Crystal Palace goes into Goodison Park and did their best smash-and-grab, and we were back in business. Fourth is back in our hands, innit? Not so fast, say Everton. A convincing win over Man U reminds us that, yes, Everton intend on seeing this thing out and making good on Martinez's promise to deliver them to the Champions League.

However. Hoowwwww-ever. Hold the phone. Don't count those chickens just yet [Insert another cliche of your choice here]. Southampton has gone and defeated Everton, handing them their second league loss in three outings, and it's starting to look like Everton, sensing that they'd squandered their best chance when they lost to Crystal Palace, have succumbed to the pressure of defending a position rather than chasing it. Once they became the front-runners for fourth, so to speak, the realization that they just might qualify for the Champions League, finishing above Man U, Tottenham, and Arsenal in the process, something they've never done in the history of the Premier League. Maybe they got complacent, believing that that 3-0 victory over us had so demoralized us and invigorated them that (like many Gooners, myself among) figured fourth was theirs to lose.

And it was.

We went into this weekend figuring that we'd spend most of it in fourth place, with Everton playing Saturday and us having to wait until Monday. Now, however, thanks to Southampton's plucky l'il win (courtesy of not one but two own-goals), we preside over fourth, a point ahead in the standings and with a game in hand. Win over Newcastle, and we're four points clear, and this is before Everton have to face Man City, who are chasing Liverpool down to the wire. We can start talking about a magic number, that combination of points we claim and points Everton drop that confirm our place on the table. Six. That's all. Six points combined will do it. We're neck-and-neck on goal-differentials, so five may not quite cut it. If we can win on Monday, that number drops to just three, and we'll have two other matches from which to find three more points on our own, and Everton will have two more matches at their end, from which they cannot afford to drop any. In fact, with us having three matches left to play, Everton hope that the best we do is to win once and draw twice, stranding us at 75 points and leaving the tie-break to decide it. That's if Everton win their two remaining matches.

Stating the obvious, then, a win for us on Monday comes close to slamming shut the door on the entire debate. We'll then see how Everton fare against City while we go on to face dogged West Brom (whom we've drawn against twice). I don't see us backing into fourth place on the last day of the season, I'll tell you that. It may be a far-cry less than what we were gunning for as recently as February, but it may have to do. I've said it before and I'll say it again: bring me back to August 2013 and offer me fourth and the FA Cup, and I would've said, "yes, thank you." Some might call that settling for mediocrity. Finishing behind only two of the wealthiest clubs in the world, and three of the most-profligate spenders (one of whom had no European commitments to weary them)? I'd call that pretty-darn good. Maybe not good enough, but then again, anything less than a double rarely is. Let's take one more step towards confirming that "pretty darn good" finish by taking care of business on Monday.

Oh. One last thought. Tottenham managed to defeat Stoke, thanks in part to a sending-off of Shawcross. Not bad. Shawcross shoulders the blame. Stoke may still finish above Pulis. Tottenham keep alive their dreams of not celebrating St. Totteringham's Day for a few more precious days before we print the invites on Monday.