Euro desinty is still in Everton's own hands
DISAPPOINTED Everton players, staff and supporters were certainly not in the mood for a lap of honour after 'only' drawing yesterday's game with Aston Villa 2-2 but the potentially crucial result ensured that the club have now reached their highest ever Premier League points tally.
Everton, now on 62 points, have twice finished on 61 in the Premier League. The first occasion was in 1995-96 - Joe Royle's only full season in charge at Goodison Park - the 'Dogs of War' who had battled their way clear of relegation the previous year and won the FA Cup, added Andrei Kanchelskis to their ranks and inspired by the 16-goal flying winger collected 61 points.
Finishing sixth that season was not good enough to secure a UEFA Cup finish. A 1-0 win over Villa on the final day was unable to haul Royle's side above former Evertonian Bruce Rioch's troops at Arsenal after goals in the last eight minutes from David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp saw the Gunners overturn a 1-0 deficit at home to their manager's previous club Bolton.
The second occasion, 2004-05 was of course Everton's year of shock Champions League qualification and will be mentioned again below.
This year Everton's destiny remains in their own hands and that's a crucial factor to remember as it remains imperative that everyone connected with the club now adopts a positive frame of mind over the forthcoming fortnight.
The body language, style of play and results on the pitch had all suggested ahead of the Villa game that Everton had spent six weeks feeling sorry for themselves after their unfortunate penalty shoot-out defeat to Fiorentina in the UEFA Cup on March 12.
Of course, injuries to key players, especially several of the more creative forces in the team, did not help but the end of a European dream, that with a couple of more favourable bounces of a ball could have genuinely become a reality, loomed large, casting a growing shadow over Goodison as Everton's lead over the chasing pack was gradually eroded.
David Moyes finally admitted last week that the loss could be a factor towards his side's downward spiral in fortunes but having produced their first genuine gutsy display since that cruel night against the Florentines, the Scot and his Evertonian public must hope a corner has now been turned.
Having twice led against Villa, the second time with only five minutes left on the clock, only to be pegged back on both occasions will be particularly galling for Everton given that victory in this 'six- pointer' would have all but booked their place in Europe but they still have the upper hand over Martin O'Neill's side with two games to go.
Even if the Midlands side win both their remaining fixtures - which being Wigan at home and West Ham away they are capable of doing - Everton can ensure that this is not enough for them to leapfrog them into the final UEFA Cup berth.
Presuming that Villa were to take maximum points from now on, Everton would need another four points from their own fixtures which means avoiding defeat at the Emirates next Sunday. The forthcoming trip to Arsenal will be very different to when they travelled to Highbury for their penultimate game of the 2004-05 season when buoyed by their unlikely Champions League qualification, Moyes's men took things a bit too easy and slumped to an embarrassing 7-0 mauling.
Their manager will be determined to avoid a repeat showing on this occasion but it's interesting to note that three years ago a 61-point finish was good enough to book a place in European football's elite club tournament.
Everton knew several weeks ago that a similar total would not be good enough this time so it shows how far the bar has been raised.
Having finished sixth 12 months ago, Everton will have cast a glance over their shoulders last summer at Tottenham - best of the rest after the 'big four' for the past two seasons, Manchester City and Newcastle United who all invested heavilyover the close season.
But while confirmation has yet to come that Goodison Park will be the home of the champions of the Premier League's second tier this year and have the automatic UEFA Cup football that comes as the prize for doing so, just finishing above the aforementioned trio of moneybags outfits is an achievement in itself.
Free-scoring Villa, the division's form side over the past month, were never going to be a pushover yesterday, particularly as they are chasing the same goal. as Everton But the hosts will be disappointed with the goals they conceded.
As surely the Premier League's tallest outfit and typical of an O'Neill team, Villa are deadly from set-pieces having scored more than half their goals this way. So why was Gabriel Agbonlahor left unmarked for their first?
Everton seemed to think the job was done when Joseph Yobo restored their lead but less than 30 seconds later the giant figure of John Carew was again on his own to nod past Tim Howard after Gareth Barry had been given acres of Goodison Park turf to run into.
Any sulking from Everton will only help Villa to usurp them though so it's crucial that spirits remain high at
As of yesterday, this team that had always promised to be so, has become Everton's best side of the Premier League era. That will be scant consolation if they miss out on Europe though so now is the time to prove their status and finish the job in hand.