Can outsiders Everton save season with Europa League effort?
Everton, 28/1 outsiders with Coral for a Premier League top six finish, must make their Europa League chances count if they are to secure continental football for next season.
After flirting with the Champions League places last term, the Toffees have disappointed domestically this campaign and could now pay the price by missing out on Europe completely.
Experienced Everton midfield grafter Gareth Barry recently spoke of his hope for silverware success to save their season, stating: “Realistically the best hope we’ve got… is to try to win the Europa competition because that would bring a Champions League place.”
“That is a massive target to aim at. There’s no reason why we can’t go all the way because we seem to be able to play without pressure in Europe. It is hard to put a finger on why that is the case,” added the former Manchester City star.
Can the Merseyside outfit really challenge the likes of local rivals Liverpool, plus Italian giants Inter Milan, Napoli and Roma?
Roberto Martinez’s men certainly showed promise in their 4-1 demolition of Swiss Super League side Young Boys Berne last time out, but will need to keep that momentum rolling as they prepare to play host.
Now the best placed British side to quality for the last 16, of course Everton’s potential for further progression will depend largely on the luck of the draw. Should the Toffees ease past Young Boys as expected, however, there is no reason they cannot battle the best.
There is little difference between the swashbuckling side that scalped giants Arsenal and Manchester United last season, aside from a surprising lack of confidence, so odds of 16/1 for Everton the lift the Europa League are more than generous.
Balance has been the main problem for Martinez recently, as his side first struggled to stop leaking goals before a more defensively savvy approach saw them stunted up front.
Injuries have of course played a part, and Martinez will need his main players to remain fit as squad depth remains a concern. Young centre back John Stones, 20, has had a hugely calming influence on the club’s backline, which has conceded just seven in eight since his return.
A red card sees the defender suspended for this duel, but Stones’ partnership with Phil Jagielka has proven to be the side’s most successful. A perfect mix of experience, exuberance, tactical nous and ability on the ball, this pairing is essential to Everton’s success and Tim Howard’s stability in net.
Midfield anchor James McCarthy is striving to return to his best after several injury niggles, but now has the chance to show just why Martinez views him as irreplaceable. Able to shield the defence and spring attacks, the Republic of Ireland international’s form is crucial for the Toffees’ attackers.
England star Ross Barkley has often struggled for consistency but, as his late impact against Liverpool illustrated, the 21-year-old’s occasional sloppiness on the ball is worth his ingenuity. With McCarthy back to mop up, Martinez should now place more faith in the robust midfield maestro to lead.
Up top, off-field issues with Kevin Mirallas should be shelved for the time being as the Toffees seek to consolidate for next season. Triumph largely depends on two brilliant Belgians, Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku (5/1 to score two or more against Young Boys), working in tandem, with the latter finally justifying his pricetag.
The Red Devils duo are match for most teams, and could trouble any of the Europa League favourites’ defences if they live up to expectations.