Roberto Martinez’s statement and promise at the start of the season was bold. Scepticism would have been understandable when the former Wigan manager said he’d guide Everton into the Champions League, bettering predecessor David Moyes, whose eleven years with the club saw him no further than the qualifying round of the competition.
Like their Merseyside rivals, Everton are punching above their weight this season. Considering the resources available to clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham, especially considering the latter’s expenditure during the summer, clear daylight would have been expected between the north London clubs, vying for fourth, and Everton, who surely would have been happy with continuity and a Europa League place.
That Martinez may yet come good on his promise doesn’t just speak of Arsenal’s spectacular implosion – though it has played a part – it speaks of his managerial qualities, not only tactically but in acquiring and developing young players to perform at the highest level.
Martinez’s act of turning a defensively sound but generally unexciting team into a group who are justifying their place in their race for fourth with excellent football has been an incredible achievement.
The next step is understanding whether this team are ready for the big time in Europe. Like the Premier League title race and the relegation battle, nothing is decided yet. Everton may yet end up with a fifth-placed spot in the table, though it would be nothing akin to a failure on the club’s part.
The problem is the club are still well short of being able to match the regulars who compete in the Champions League on a financial level, with Chief Executive Robert Elstone suggesting in January that much of the club’s investment would be in youth and the academy.
Everton are comparable to clubs from Europe like Villarreal, Udinese and Real Sociedad, who are admired for one reason or another but come undone once they enter Uefa’s top club competition.
Villarreal had a terrible campaign the last time they were in the Champions League, finishing bottom of their group in 2011/12 and going on the be relegated that season. Udinese’s scouting system is enormously praised, having unearthed and developed a number of exciting talents from across Europe and South America. But their inability to retain players like Samir Handanovic, Alexis Sanchez, Mehdi Banatia, and Gokhan Inler over the years has not only seen them struggle to make it out of the qualifiers, but also compete again domestically.
As for Real Sociedad, the standout performers in La Liga last season, their finances, like Villarreal, simply don’t allow for them to compete internationally, even following the sale of Asier Illarramendi last summer for £26 million.
That might be the reality for Martinez. Everton should also be mindful of the gulf in quality from the Premier League’s best and those from the continent. Yes, Chelsea may be in the semi-final and Manchester United could very well join them. But it’s been a long time since an English club dismantled a European counterpart in the manner Bayern and Barcelona have done in recent years.
The hope for Everton if they do finish fourth comes in the form of the success stories; fairytales even.
Villarreal’s El Madrigal stadium houses a little over 20,000, and yet they’ve been to the semi-final and the quarter-final under Manuel Pellegrini. Last season, the current Manchester City boss was within minutes of guiding Malaga – whose owner had decided to take a walk and not fulfil financial promises and obligations – past Borussia Dortmund and into the semi-finals.
Even more so, Tottenham’s inexperience saw them to a string of memorable European victories during their campaign in 2009-10.
Martinez’s shrewd planning, both in what he has and in preparing for business in the market, could very well see Everton into the latter category. If the club are able to bring back Romelu Lukaku next season with the incentive of Champions League football, as well as retaining key players like Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman and Gareth Barry, who is free to sign on a bosman during the summer, Everton could very well have a successful campaign in Europe. Barcelona’s current transfer ban, though, means players like Gerard Deulofeu will almost certainly be retained by the Catalans.
What we can categorically say about Martinez is that he’s progressive and is yet to look out of place alongside any of his achievements. While Everton’s youthful squad may not take to Champions League football immediately, there is an assurance about the manager that he’ll find a way to adapt. The current season and what he’s brought to Goodison Park allows for the idea of a fluke win against Manchester City in the FA Cup Final last season to be completely rejected.
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