Everton’s 3-0 victory over Newcastle at St James’ Park extended their league run to four straight victories, putting them just six points behind fourth placed Arsenal, with a game in hand.
The progress Roberto Martinez has made this season with the Toffees has blown anything David Moyes did with them out of the water. With Everton hosting the Gunners in the Premier League in just over a week, Martinez has Everton fans dreaming big.
Everton’s tally of 57 points after 30 games equals Moyes’ best total at this stage, from the 2007-08 season. Everton fans and management were very much preparing for a year of ‘transition’, but the players have taken like ducks to water under Martinez’s watch.
They could have been forgiven for dropping away this season. With the strengthening of Chelsea, Liverpool, (arguably) Arsenal, and (on paper) Tottenham, the outlook didn’t look too positive for Martinez. But he has instilled his players with the confidence to play the type of expansive football that they were previously unfamiliar under the previous regime.
Martinez was keen to play down his side’s hopes of Champions League football, claiming that European football in general will be a step forward for the club. And no doubt, it really would be. But the fact that Everton can, with just eight games to go, realistically discuss the possibility of Champions League football next season is a great tribute to the work Martinez and his players have put in so far this season.
One real plus to have come from Martinez’s impact is the growth of Ross Barkley. He was introduced to Premier League football two seasons ago under David Moyes and Everton fans were instantly aware of his potential. Two seasons later, after a couple of loan spells, and Barkley is a vital component of the side.
Barkley’s first full season of Premier League football has been a revelation. After the early season excitement, Barkley is beginning to produce the special moments that he has shown glimpses of. His 70-yard run and roof of the net finish against Newcastle was the greatest example of what Barkley is capable of. He displayed his confidence and his ability on the ball to carry it from his own half into Newcastle’s penalty area, shifting past two defenders before firing the ball beyond Tim Krul. It had, whisper it quietly, shades of Thierry Henry vs Tottenham about it.
It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that had Arsenal not accrued the lengthy list of injuries that they have done in 2014 then the Champions League positions would have been done and dusted by now. But they have, and they’re not. Arsenal’s inexorable season decline seems to be full steam ahead and Everton are first in line to take full advantage.
When Arsenal travel to Goodison Park the gap between the sides could be just three points. Lacking in confidence and personnel, Arsenal will be travelling to a side that is currently on a six-game win streak at home. They could just be ripe picking for the Toffees.
It isn’t just Ross Barkley who has reaped the benefits under Roberto Martinez either. Seamus Coleman has grown into one of the best full-backs in the country, and is a shoe-in to make the PFA Team of the Season. The back four, shielded by Martinez’s go-to guy of James McCarthy and a reinvigorated Gareth Barry, has the third best defensive record in the Premier League. La Masia graduate Gerard Deulofeu, despite having somewhat limited opportunities, has shone so much that there is talk of him being integrated into Barcelona’s first-team squad next season. Martinez has struck a balance between youth and experience, and both parties are profiting.
The real key for next season will be to keep the squad heading in the direction it’s currently moving. The loanees of Barry, Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku will initially return to their parent club and it will be down to Martinez to fill the holes that are left. Champions League football would go a great distance in assisting this process.
When Roberto Martinez was announced as Everton boss he promised Bill Kenwright future Champions League football. Nobody expected it to be easy, and even fewer expected his promise to be fulfilled in his first season. With eight games to go Everton are on the verge of joining Europe’s elite next season. Roberto Martinez, take a bow.
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