Everton currently sits in 5th place, just outside of the Champions League qualification realm. This year might be the best opportunity for the Toffees to qualify for the CL in recent years, even after a disappointing loss to Sunderland. Here is the table prior to the games of December 28th.
As we (nearly) sit on the halfway point of the season, let's take a look at the schedules of the clubs competing for the top 4 spots, and see what we can learn from them.
Remaining league matches: December: 29th @ Newcastle
February: 2nd v. Palace, 8th @ Liverpool, 12th v. Manchester United, 22nd v. Sunderland
March: 1st @ Stoke, 8th v. Swansea, 15th @ Tottenham, 22nd @ Chelsea, 29th v. Manchester City
April: 5th @ Everton, 12th v. West Ham, 18th @ Hull, 26th v. Newcastle
May: 3rd v. West Brom, 11th @ Norwich
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 4 v. Tottenham
Champions League - Feb. 19 v. Bayern Munich, March 11 @ Bayern Munich
Verdict: The next month and a half look simple enough for the Gunners, with their biggest league challenge being a trip to Southampton. One would expect Arsenal to maintain their hold on the top spot until then, but tough matches at Liverpool and against Manchester United directly precede a must-win match in the home leg of the CL against Bayern Munich. The rest of their tough matches come directly in a stretch from the end of March into April, where they play away to 3 of the top 8 teams in the table currently, along with hosting Manchester City. Arsene Wenger may very well field a strong side in their opening round FA Cup match against Tottenham, but given the weakness in their schedule at the start of January, the Gunners should be able to get away with that.
Remaining league matches: December: 29th v. Liverpool
January: 1st @ Southampton, 11th v. Hull City, 19th v. Manchester United, 29th v. West Ham
February: 3rd @ Manchester City, 8th v. Newcastle, 11th @ West Brom, 22nd v. Everton
March: 1st @ Fulham, 8th v. Tottenham, 15th @ Aston Villa, 22nd v. Arsenal, 29th @ Palace
April: 5th v. Stoke, 12th @ Swansea, 19th v. Sunderland, 26th @ Liverpool
May: 3rd v. Norwich, 11th @ Cardiff
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 5 @ Derby County
Champions League - Feb. 26 @ Galatasaray, March 18 v. Galatasaray
Verdict: Chelsea has likely the easiest remaining schedule of the Premier League clubs still in the Champions League. They only travel to 2 of the 8 top teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, and only play top 8 teams consecutively one time, at the start of February. Galatasaray is no pushover, but certainly not on the level of Bayern or Barcelona. Still, their CL matches come at inopportune times, right before a match against Everton in February and Arsenal in March.
Remaining league matches: December: 29th @ Chelsea
January: 1st v. Hull, 12th @ Stoke, 18th v. Aston Villa, 28th v. Everton
February: 2nd @ West Brom, 8th v. Arsenal, 12th @ Fulham, 23rd v. Swansea
March: 1st @ Southamption, 8th v. Sunderland, 15th @ Manchester United, 22nd @ Cardiff, 29th v. Tottenham
April: 5th @ West Ham, 12th v. Manchester City, 19th @ Norwich, 26th v. Chelsea
May: 3rd @ Palace, 11th v. Newcastle
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 5th, v. Oldham Athletic
Verdict: Liverpool's failure to make European competition this season could very well be what carries them to the heights of the table. Their squad, not entirely unlike Everton's, lacks depth, but their first 11 can easily be top 4 when healthy. Their second half schedule in the league is kind, with only 2 trips away to top 8 teams and no consecutive matches against top 8 clubs. Thus, their schedule, particularly if they make a quick exit in the FA Cup, might be the easiest of all top 8 clubs.
Remaining league matches: December: 28th v. Palace
January: 1st @ Swansea, 12th @ Newcastle, 18th v. Cardiff, 29th @ Tottenham
February: 3rd v. Chelsea, 8th @ Norwich, 12th v. Sunderland, 22nd v. Stoke
March: 1st @ Manchester United, 8th v. Aston VIlla, 15th @ Hull, 22nd v. Fulham, 29th @ Arsenal
April: 5th v. Southampton, 12th @ Liverpool, 19th v. West Brom, 26th @ Palace
May: 3rd @ Everton, 11th v. West Ham
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 4 @ Blackburn
League Cup - Jan. 8 v. West Ham, Jan 21 @ West Ham
Champions League - Feb. 18 v. Barcelona, March 12th @ Barcelona
Verdict: City has it rough for the second half of the season. They still have 6 matches away to the top 8 teams, the League Cup to consider, and a CL match-up with one of the top clubs in the world. City spent heavily in the off-season though, and if any team has the depth to deal with this barrage of big matches, it is probably Manchester City. Additionally, they have no consecutive matches against top 8 clubs. Still, Manuel Pelligrini's club probably has the toughest remaining schedule of any top 8 club, especially considering that City's away form has been significantly below par compared to their home record.
Remaining league matches: December: 28th @ Norwich
January: 1st v. Tottenham, 11th v. Swansea, 19th @ Chelsea, 28th v. Cardiff
February: 1st @ Stoke, 9th v. Fulham, 12th @ Arsenal, 22nd @ Palace
March: 1st v. Manchester City, 8th @ West Brom, 15th v. Liverpool, 22nd @ West Ham, 29th v. Villa
April: 5th @ Newcastle, 12th v. Hull, 19th @ Everton, 26th v. Norwich
May: 3rd v. Sunderland, 11th @ Southampton
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 5th v. Swansea
League Cup - Jan. 7th @ Sunderland, Jan. 22 v. Sunderland
Champions League - Feb. 25th @ Olympiacos, March 19th v. Olympiacos
Verdict: After the last two weeks, David Moyes will hope that his side has finally turned the corner, moving up to 7th, earning a semi-final bid to the League Cup, as well as a bid to the Champions' League Round of 16. They play 4 top 8 teams away in the second half of the season, but none consecutively. They play at Chelsea just 3 days before their second league of the League Cup semi-finals, but certainly will hope to have put the Black Cats away on the road in the first leg.
Remaining league matches: December: 29th v. Arsenal
January: 1st @ West Brom, 12th v. Manchester City, 18th @ West Ham, 28th @ Norwich
February: 1st v. Sunderland, 8th @ Chelsea, 12th v. Tottenham, 23rd v. Aston Villa
March: 1st @ Hull City, 8th v. Everton, 15th @ Fulham, 22nd v. Palace, 29th @ Southampton
April: 5th v. Manchester United, 12th @ Stoke, 19th v. Swansea, 26th @ Arsenal
May: 3rd v. Cardiff, 11th @ Liverpool
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 4 v. Cardiff
Verdict: The Magpies are likely the most surprising inclusion on this list, given their slow start to this season and mediocre performance last season. But Newcastle has picked up their play of late, with wins at Manchester United, Tottenham, and against Chelsea; but whether they have the talent to keep up this pace is certainly debatable. If they can keep in the top 4 race, they will have opportunities to propel themselves forward at the end of the season with matches at Arsenal and Liverpool, but it seems unlikely they can even get themselves to that point, much less take advantage of the opportunity if they get there.
Remaining league matches: December: 29th v. Stoke
January: 1st @ Manchester United, 11th v. Palace, 19th @ Swansea, 29th v. Manchester City
February: 1st @ Hull, 9th v. Everton, 12th @ Newcastle, 23rd @ Norwich
March: 2nd v. Cardiff, 8th @ Chelsea, 15th v. Arsenal, 22nd v. Southampton, 29th @ Liverpool
April: 5th v. Sunderland, 12th @ West Brom, 19th v. Fulham, 26th @ Stoke
May: 3rd @ West Ham, 11th v. Aston Villa
Other Matches: FA Cup - Jan. 4 @ Arsenal
Europa League - Feb. 20 @ Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Feb. 27 v. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk
Verdict: First and foremost, try to say Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk ten times fast. Or three times fast. Or once correctly. I digress. Tottenham has only 19 goals through 18 matches, so if they plan to stay in this area of the table, they certainly need to correct that problem. Spurs play 4 times away from home against top 8 opponents, and face a tough stretch in February that sees them play Everton, at Newcastle, and both legs of their Europa League Round of 32 match-up. March doesn't get any easier for Spurs, as they play at Chelsea, against Arsenal, and at Liverpool, with a potential Europa League Round of 16 match-up as well.
So where does that leave us in regards to other clubs? Arsenal and City likely have the toughest roads ahead, but currently lead the league. Chelsea and Liverpool likely have the simplest roads, but Chelsea has been marred by inconsistency and Liverpool is faced with injuries to key players and a lack of depth. Manchester United, Newcastle, and Tottenham all have middle of the road schedules, but none appear to have the ability to make a serious push into the top 4 right now (though that is always subject to change). For now, let's focus on Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and City.
In December, Arsenal played Everton, City, and Chelsea consecutively, and only managed to pull out two points, but their record against inferior teams is nearly spotless. They may very well struggle when they face a similar stretch in March/April, but if they can continue to succeed against lesser opponents, a 40 point second half seems very plausible.
Chelsea has had spells of uncertainty at times this season; in the last month, they've had unconvincing wins against Sunderland, Palace, and Swansea, lost to Stoke, and drawn Arsenal. Until the Londoners can get consistent scoring from strikers and consistent, confident defending (which admittedly has been better in their last two matches), it is hard to see this team making a real push, easier schedule aside. A repeat performance of 37 points seems reasonable.
Liverpool is perhaps the most unpredictable club of the bunch. Luis Suarez has carried the team since his return, especially with injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard. Normally such a reliance on one player is unhealthy for a team, but with the way Suarez is playing, it is certainly possible he could continue to carry Liverpool into title contention. Gerrard will return soon, and certainly will ease the load on the Uruguayan as well. There are two concerns for the red side of Merseyside though; they still lack a win against a top 5 side (they play Chelsea for the first time this weekend), and one has to wonder if better teams have been, and will continue to be able to slow down the Reds if they stay one-dimensional. Liverpool's other cause for concern is the Uruguayan superstar himself; he is prone to stupid, ban-worthy actions. So far this season, he has given little cause for such concern, but given his history, such an issue arising in the future is not out of the question. We'll say Liverpool picks up 42 points in the second half due to their easy schedule, but knowing that if Suarez finds himself banned, that total will drop.
The Citizens appear to have remembered how to play football away from the Etihad to some degree in recent weeks, but with 6 matches away to the top 8 teams in the league, it could be a struggle for Manchester City. They may very well have the most talent in the Premier League, but it will do them no good if it doesn't materialize on the road. We'll say City picks up 45 points if their recent form both at home and on the road keeps up, but only 35 at most if they forget how to play away from Manchester again.
These considerations would make a top 4 that looks something like this at the end of the season...
OR (if City flops)
So a top 4 birth would take between 73 and 74 points, more or less. Let's take a look at Everton's schedule and see how plausible it is that they take 39 or 40 points from the remaining schedule.
Remaining league matches: December: 29th v. Southampton
January: 1st @ Stoke, 11th v. Norwich, 20th @ West Brom, 28th @ Liverpool
February: 1st v. Villa, 9th @ Tottenham, 12th v. Palace, 22nd @ Chelsea
March: 1st v. West Ham, 8th @ Newcastle, 15th v. Cardiff, 22nd v. Swansea, 29th @ Fulham
April: 5th v. Arsenal, 12th @ Sunderland, 19th v. Manchester United, 26th @ Southampton
May: 3rd v. Manchester City, 11th @ Hull City
Verdict: Everton's second half schedule is more or less middle of the road. They play 4 top 8 teams on the road, but 2 of them being the bottoms clubs in Tottenham and Newcastle. I'll immediately take out the matches at Liverpool and Chelsea, because as much as Roberto Martinez has encouraged the club to play positively in such matches, I think we've already hit our quota for historic matches in one campaign. With those two games out, the Toffees will need 40 points from a possible 54. Matches at home against Norwich, Villa, Palace, West Ham, Cardiff, and Swansea are must-wins if Everton wants to avoid making things exceedingly difficult. Those 18 points would put the team about halfway to their goal.
The next most difficult matches will likely be both at home and away to Southampton, and at Stoke, West Brom, Fulham, and Sunderland. If the boys in blue can take 13 points from these possible 18 (four wins, a draw, and a loss), that would put the second half point total at 31.
The most difficult matches will be at Tottenham and Newcastle, and hosting Arsenal, Manchester United, and Manchester City. 3 wins from these 5 matches would put the Blues right at that magic number, 40.
Yesterday, Brian set 70 points as a target for Everton to hit to reach a Champions League qualification spot. If all of the other top competitors can keep up the pace they set from the first half of the season (which is far from guaranteed, of course), they may need to punch in slightly above that. However, if they take care of the matches that need to be taken care of, and play their best on the road and against fellow top 8 competition, there is no reason why they cannot make 70, or even slightly higher, a reality. Of course, this is all well and good until these matches are played, and surely make me look foolish!
What do you think? Are the targets Brian and I have discussed around the levels you think Everton needs to meet to make the top 4? Do you think the Toffees can reach such levels? Am I totally off in my assessments of other contenders and their schedules? Let me hear it below!