Looking over the remaining Premier League fixtures, I have to admit that I think it's exceedingly likely that Everton are going to finish in the same place they sit right now: sixth. Such a finish would undoubtedly be viewed by many as stagnation and a disappointment, especially considering the way the team charged out of the gate and the expectations that the fast start generated. With Swansea City and either Wigan Athletic or Millwall already claiming two Europa League spots through the cups, it's fifth place or bust as far as Europe is concerned. Do the Toffees have a shot?
While the challenge is daunting, there's a certain simplistic beauty in the situation facing Everton. There are three teams above them they could realistically catch, all from London. Catch one of them, you're going to the Europa League. Catch two of them, you're going to the Champions League. This is of course assuming that Everton can also hold off Liverpool, an ever-present goal for the blue half of Merseyside that might take on a little added meaning this year. There could also be potential complications if Chelsea or Spurs were to win this year's Europa League, but we'll ignore that possibility for now.
The table currently looks like this (click to expand):
The question is, which team(s) look the most vulnerable? Let's compare the strength of schedule for the three teams directly above Everton:
Average PPG (points per game) of remaining opponents: 1.39
Tottenham's remaining fixtures are clearly split into two distinct stretches: a very difficult three-game run over the next few weeks, and a very easy four-game coast to the finish line. If Everton can steal the match at White Hart Lane on Sunday, the pressure will be firmly on Spurs with a visit to Stamford Bridge and a home match with Man City on the horizon. But on the flip side, if Everton aren't at least on level footing with Tottenham by the conclusion of those games (and preferably with a 1-3 point lead), it really doesn't seem likely that they will be able to catch Spurs by the end of the season.
Average PPG (points per game) of remaining opponents: 1.52
This is far from an easy schedule for Chelsea. They should be able to take care of business this weekend against Sunderland (although with the new manager bubble you never know), but after that there are a lot of tricky fixtures that crop up. A West London derby at Craven Cottage is no sure thing, nor is the season's penultimate match at Villa Park against a team that will likely be fighting for their Premier League lives. Oh, and that visit to Old Trafford probably isn't going to be a cakewalk, either. Then there is the last game on the schedule, at which point Everton will simply be hoping that they control their own destiny. Chelsea also could be distracted by both the FA Cup and the Europa League, so you can definitely envision a scenario in which they drop quite a few points between now and the end of the season.
Average PPG (points per game) of remaining opponents: 1.36
Other than the home match with Manchester United (and I suppose the home match with us), this is a pretty favorable run-in for the Gunners. Five of their eight matches are at home, with three bottom feeders in a row to end the season. Arsenal also won't be distracted by any other competitions, and Arsene Wenger usually finds a way to get his teams into the top four. The good news is that the Gunners are the team that Everton is the closest to right now, with just two points separating the two clubs. Everton have a chance to track down Arsenal, but a win at the Emirates Stadium is probably going to be required to make that happen.
@ Tottenham Hotspur
v Queens Park Rangers
v West Ham United
Average PPG (points per game) of remaining opponents: 1.61
No doubt about it, this is a tough run of games. Average PPG agrees, with Everton's 1.61 mark the highest of the four teams in the analysis. I've seen a lot of fans bemoaning the fact that the three matches against the teams above us are all on the road, but really we should be grateful. Yes, those are likely to be very difficult games, but at least this allows Everton to be a little less dependent on other results going their way. Also, it should go without saying that Everton really can't afford to slip up in the games they are supposed to win, so 9-10 points at minimum against QPR, Sunderland, Fulham, and West Ham are a must.
Finishing in fifth place is going to be a tall order for Everton; finishing in fourth place looks like it might require a minor miracle. However, the fact remains that if Everton collect points at a steady pace over the final two months they're going to have a chance, particularly if they can win a game or two at White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, or the Emirates. It doesn't hurt that Everton are playing solid football at the moment and haven't let the disaster against Wigan destroy their season, which is encouraging.
Honestly, looking at the schedules and considering each team's circumstances, I think Chelsea is the team that looks the most vulnerable. That last match of the season could end up being one for the ages, but we'll see. Everton haven't left themselves much margin for error, but at least we can still talk about qualifying for both European competitions on April 3. All that's left to say is... COYB!!