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4 pts, 9 games — The Chase Is On

By Chris James :  16/03/2009 :  Comments (0) :
So here we are. 9 games to go and 4 points separating us from a Champions League place.

The seemingly unassailable gap from February has shrunk, Villa have collapsed and despite the naysayers Everton have continued to pick up points even without Arteta or first choice striker; Moyes has managed to fashion a midfield that can create chances and play a little.

If we had held out against Villa and Arsenal in the last seconds at Goodison or not been robbed of the winner against Chelsea, we'd already be sitting in 4th (in fact we'd be 2 points ahead of Villa and Arsenal). And of course if my auntie had bollocks... she'd be my uncle.

Naturally we'd all prefer to be in that position (the points that is, not the auntie with gonads), but there's still a quarter of the season to go and there'll be more twists and turns yet.

The question now that we're closing in, is can we really do it and how? As I see it there are three stages to our bid for a CL place: 1. overhauling a struggling Aston Villa; 2. catching a resurgent Arsenal; and 3. winning our own games

1. Overhauling Aston Villa: As many have predicted, their luck not to mention their confidence appears to have run out. Like Man City last year and Portsmouth the year before (and to be fair us the year before that) they've simply run out of steam at a crucial point. The next 3 games against Liverpool, Man Utd and us could knock the stuffing out of them completely. I can see them taking 1 point max from the first 2 games and then it's down to us to either overtake them or stretch the lead. After that, they've got a run-in against likely UEFA spot 7th place chasers (West Ham, Fulham) and likely relegation battlers (Middlesboro, Newcastle, Hull and Bolton).

Earlier in the season you'd have had them down to win most of those games, once confidence is further cracked it'll be tough.

Verdict: We can overtake them on 12th April.

2. Catching a resurgent Arsenal. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece where I virtually wrote off a stumbling that looks naieve to say the least. The penalty shoot out in Rome definitely went the wrong way for us. What could have been a post-Fiorentina style slump instead became a rallying call which then saw then thump Blackburn at home at the weekend, effectively cementing an extra point lead in the form of goal-difference. With Arshavin starting to click and Fabregas to return for the run-in, hopes of Arsenal continuing to easily squander points are abating fast.

However, there is room for optimism. For starters I think that the Blackburn game was a bit of an aberration (they were very poor), that Arsenal still lack strength in midfield and can be frustrated and bullied by defensively organised teams and are unlikely to have Fabregas back to full fitness till May. This year they've proved prone to plenty of random results and whilst I'm not sure either Newcastle or Man City can provide them, they could well trip up over Middlesboro, Wigam and Stoke. They also have plenty of distractions, in the form of CL quarter finals and FA Cup quarter/semi finals. Ultimately though our best bet has to remain with the other big 3 - games against Liverpool in April and Man U and Chelsea in May should clip at least 4 points from their wings if not more.

Verdict: We need to get close to them by the end of April so that we're in striking distance come the middle of May.

3. Winning our own games Obviously this really is the crux of the matter. Whilst Arsenal and Villa have plenty of points-draining fixtures, at the end of the day that only matters if we can secure the points. Without the front-line options of Yak and Vaughan that was tough, without Arteta tougher still and if Cahill's knock turns out to need the treatment table then suffice to say that ratchets it up another notch.

The good news is that 8 of the 9 games ahead are genuinely winnable against sides that are below us (I've marked down a Hiddink-inspired, potentially still title chasing Chelsea as a 0 pointer), our final three games are likely to be against teams with not too much to play for by this point (i.e. Spurs safe, West Ham in 7th and Fulham drifted to mid-table) and only Sunderland are relegation battlers.

Verdict: To be in with any sort of chance we're going to have to win the majority of these games (I'd say 7) and only drop 5 more points. It's still a long shot with our small and depleted squad, but I actually do believe we can do it. It won't be pretty and we'll be grinding out results in some (if not most) matches, but if we can keep the squad fit and keep on rolling... you know it might just work.

All that said, I have to say that ultimately a top 6 and the FA Cup semis is a solid season — take into account a terrible start and long term injuries to our 2 best players and I'd even argue it's a good season.

Should we manage to squeek to the FA Cup final, it's a very good season. Throw in CL qualification as well and quite frankly I'd be over the bloody moon. COYB!

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