A Very Crucial Christmas

Clive Brunskill

The festive period could come to define the Toffees' pursuit of European football this season.The festive period could come to define the Toffees' pursuit of European football this season.

In the wake of a phenomenal week of results for Everton, in which the Blues gained points away at both Old Trafford and the Emirates, there has been a rush amongst fans and pundits alike to talk up Roberto Martinez's side as genuine contenders for Champions League qualification this season. The Toffees appear to be hitting their stride at just the right time, and there are a couple of factors to suggest that they could well deliver on the promise they've shown to date in the Premier League.

For starters, Everton are a stronger team this year; of that there's little doubt. The departures of Phil Neville and Marouane Fellaini have been offset by the captures of James McCarthy and Gareth Barry respectively, and the Blues' attacking options have been augmented significantly with the loan signings of Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu (the less said about Arouna Kone's unfortunate time on Merseyside so far, the better).

But what's particularly important to recognise is that the Toffees are competing in what is arguably a weaker league than they were last year, or at the very least they find themselves in competition with a number of teams in various states of transition. This time last year there was a seven-point gap between the two Manchester clubs and a chasing pack of Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Brom. Now, as we approach the end of 2013, it's unsurprising to see that two of the teams that didn't change managers in the summer - Arsenal and Liverpool - top the table ahead of free-spending Chelsea and Manchester City.

Aside from the Gunners, who sit five points clear of their nearest rivals at present, no team can claim to have performed with any real consistency since the back end of August, and it's this environment of uncertainty that presents Everton with an opportunity - perhaps the best they will have for some time - to grab a coveted top-four place.

As enjoyable and morale-boosting as the last two games have been then, it will likely be the Christmas period that comes to define the outcome of the Toffees' season. Besides a home game against Southampton on December 29th, Everton will not face a side currently sitting higher than 10th position in the Premier League until the second Merseyside derby on January 28th at Anfield, and while Martinez's side will face Fulham, Swansea and Sunderland in their next three games, their Merseyside neighbours face away trips to Tottenham, Chelsea, and Man City.

In previous years, it is fixtures such as these in which Everton have faltered. Under David Moyes the Blues finished last season with a league high of 15 draws, and it was this dropping of points against lesser opposition that saw them ultimately slip behind their rivals. This year, wins against Newcastle United, Manchester United and Chelsea have caught the eye, but it is the draws against West Brom, Crystal Palace and Norwich that could end up having a greater effect on the Toffees' pursuit of European football.

The 4-0 victory over Stoke City gave us a glimpse of what Everton can do when they indulge their ruthless streak, but they will need to be at their incisive and clinical best over the coming weeks to ensure that they make the most of their advantageous festive fixture list. If we are to continue talking about them as European contenders, it's imperative that the Blues find themselves in the top four come Boxing Day.

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