After a couple of disappointing years in the league surely weâ€™ll have learnt our lesson and wonâ€™t set our expectations too high this preseason?
Only once in the last six seasons has anyone other than the Moneybags League regulars finished in the top four when in 2004/05 Everton ended fourth, three points clear of Liverpool (and Bolton). Since then itâ€™s been the cartel first, everyone else second. The advantages gained from prize money, media coverage, TV income, the ability to attract players and sponsorship mean that everyone else is playing catch up including us. As in other countries around Europe, qualification for UEFAâ€™s flagship competition has become a self-perpetuating cycle.
So where should we be aiming and who are our rivals? Discount the big four and the league has been â€˜wonâ€™ by only two clubs in the last five years, Everton and ourselves. As well as the fourth place in 2005 (which didnâ€™t actually upset the status quo at the top too much as the rules were bent to allow Liverpool into the Champions League the following season anyway), the â€˜Peopleâ€™s Clubâ€™ have finished fifth for the last two seasons, Martin Jol guided us to the â€˜topâ€™ during the two seasons before that. Everton are the team we should be aiming to finish above, theyâ€™re the big boys of this sub-league.
No team, not even that currently being assembled at Middle Eastlands, is going to be in a position this year to replace one of the top four unless one of them suffer a major implosion the like of which weâ€™ve not seen for a long time. When Everton finished fourth they did so with 61 points. We finished fifth the following season with 65. 2005 was a case of a Red collapse rather than an unstoppable Blue force.
My point is that if there is such an implosion then the team weâ€™ll need to make sure weâ€™re ahead of to take full advantage is the Toffees. Moyesâ€™s teams used to yo-yo season by season but the consistent performances of the core players like Cahill, Arteta, Howard, Lescott and others now mean that even the handicap of a ridiculously injury packed campaign like last yearâ€™s can be overcome. The systemâ€™s there and the players are plugged into it.
The emergence of Osman, Fellaini, Jagielka and Baines as above average players when added to those already mentioned means that not many changes are expected at Goodison over the summer and in that department at least weâ€™re matching them at the moment. The sale of Zokora is the only event of note since the end of the season. Itâ€™s everyoneâ€™s personal choice what they take seriously of the mountains of transfer speculation thatâ€™s printed every day but if you believe thereâ€™s no smoke without fire then the signals from WHL indicate that sales are needed before any purchases are made. A risky policy but presumably one brought on by a combination of our overspending during the last 3 or 4 transfer windows together with the sensible desire to keep an eye on the purse strings in the current economic climate.
Weâ€™ll need to spend though. Our terrific form from Wembley onwards was due in no small part to the lack of injuries. Once we got to one game a week over the last couple of months there was no stopping a settled side but the moment that was disrupted with injuries to Lennon, Bent, Jenas, Woodgate and the enforced absence of Palacios, weaknesses quickly appeared. We finished the season at Anfield with Bale, Zokora, Bentley and Modric across the middle, as lightweight a combination as seen anywhere all season probably. So another midfielder at least is needed and probably more. Can we rely on King, Gomes or Robbie let alone Hutton, Bale, Pavlyuchenko or Bent? And these are first team players, not those on the fringes – Bentley, Chimbonda, Oâ€™Hara or Gunter for instance.
The majority of those Everton players mentioned above would get into our team. Saha, Jo, Yobo, Vaughan, Pienaar and Neville probably wouldnâ€™t get near it and theyâ€™re first team players at Goodison. Theyâ€™d be pleased with Lennon, Defoe, Modric, Palacios, Bent, Woodgate and Corluka at least so on paper it all looks very even. One striking thing about the draw at Everton in May was the size of their two youngsters playing in that game. Rodwell and Gosling looked anything but teenagers whereas, perhaps with the exception of Bostock, all of our promising kids have some growing still to do. Mason, Parrett and Smith for starters have a ton of talent but would look flimsy if played against men at the moment.
So our task for next season is to match and better a settled side with a highly admired manager that finished 12 points and 18 goals better than us despite having no fit strikers for much of the year. To me that sounds a tough enough goal without bringing the top four into it.
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