It is so often the same story with Everton. Notoriously slow starters, proven strong finishers, and there or thereabouts when it comes to European qualification. But this season there is something different about David Moyes’ side.
Saturday saw them put in arguably their best performance of the season so far at Craven Cottage, where somehow they came away with a 2-2 draw, despite being completely dominant. The performance of Marouane Fellaini made everyone sit up and take notice once more, while his Belgian compatriot Kevin Mirallas produced another performance that suggested he may just prove to be the bargain of the season.
Moyes has got his side well drilled, and playing attractive attacking football, which has got many inside the Everton camp believing they are genuine contenders to hold onto the fourth place position they currently occupy, and qualify for Champions League football for the first time since 2005.
Following their display at Fulham on Saturday, Moyes spoke of his ‘disbelief’ at coming away from the game with just a single point, after Martin Jol’s side staged a late smash and grab. Jol then rubbed salt further into the wounds by claiming he did not believe that Everton would occupy that coveted fourth place come May.
“It’s very brave and characteristic of him [Moyes] to say that but there are so many top teams in England so it will very difficult for Everton to be in the top four,” said Jol.
“It’s good to listen to a top manager like him. I feel that Everton is a top team. They are very difficult to play against.”
Moyes and his captain Phil Neville have made no secret of their desire to finish in the top four this season, with Neville claiming they have taken the performances of Newcastle last season for inspiration.
Following their fantastic start however, Moyes’ side have picked up four consecutive draws, all matches he could argue they should have won. It is that lack of squad depth, the ability to bring on a player to change the game with a moment of magic, that I feel will ultimately prove their undoing.
Their starting XI it could be argued are worthy of a top four finish. Leighton Baines is fast becoming one of the finest full backs in the country, while Tim Howard, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin continue to perform consistently at the highest level.
Steven Pienner has been in inspired form since returning to Goodison Park, while Nikica Jelavic up front has proven that given chances, he will finish more than his fair share. And of course the Belgian pair of Fellaini and Mirallas have given Everton a completely new dimension this season.
The latter, a summer signing from Olympiacos has taken to the Premier League instantly. His performance in the Merseyside derby two weeks ago was exceptional, so much so it forced Liverpool to change their formation and make a double substitution at half time. Mirallas was forced to leave the field injured at half time, and the second half showed how sorely he was missed. One thing that will prove crucial for Everton’s quest for the top four is whether he can replicate the sort of goal scoring form he produced at Olympiacos, where he bagged an impressive 34 goals in 52 games. He has managed just one for his new club thus far.
Meanwhile his Belgian compatriot Marouane Fellaini just seems to be getting better each week, his performance against Fulham was particularly impressive. The decision to play him further up, just off Nikica Jelavic has been an inspired one from Moyes, while the likes of Pienner and Mirallas supporting from either flank give Everton a real attacking threat. Leon Osman and Phil Neville have formed a formidable partnership in the middle of the park, born out of hard work and quality on the ball.
It is when you look beyond the starting eleven that you worry for Everton. The likes of Steven Naismith, Magaye Gueye and Darron Gibson look like their most attacking or creative options from the bench, and while all are decent players, they do beg the question as to whether they have enough to be playing for a top four side. If Everton were to suffer any injuries to the likes of Fellaini or Jelavic, you worry about the calibre of replacements.
Make no mistake about the quality of the job Moyes has done at Everton. Season after season he has pulled off major transfer coups, and got his side over-achieving year after year. If they can replicate their customary strong finish to the season, you wouldn’t put a top four challenge beyond them by any means.
But their squad depth compared to the likes of North London duo Arsenal and Tottenham lead me to believe Champions League football come the end of the season will just prove a bridge too far.