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Forget Arsenal: This Week Will Be Everton's True Test

The Toffees rarely fail to raise themselves for the big games, but delivering against lower-placed opponents this week could prove more significant come the end of the season

Laurence Griffiths

It's been nearly a week since Everton's glorious, dominant, irresistible victory over Arsenal in the Premier League but I, for one, am still reliving it. Rarely in the last season, or even the last decade, has a Toffees side so eminently outclassed an opposition outfit, let alone one that until just over a month ago sat at the summit of the Premier League table.

The momentous victory at Goodison Park, Everton's first over Arsenal in seven years, has reignited the Blues' hopes of Champions League qualification, a goal that many - myself included - believed had already been surrendered weeks ago. Mathematically, it leaves Roberto Martinez's side with the upper hand: should Everton win all their remaining fixtures then nothing the Gunners can do will prevent them from achieving fourth position. Practically however, the state of affairs is far more uncertain.

Arsenal have only to face one more top half side this campaign: a home match against Alan Pardew's abject Newcastle United, whilst Everton must still welcome both Manchester clubs to Goodison Park, in addition to difficult away trips to Southampton and Hull City. These tough matches may yet decide who claims the final Champions League spot come mid-May, but before then the Blues must overcome two rather different challenges.

Tomorrow's visit to bottom of the table Sunderland and the midweek game at home to struggling Crystal Palace are likely to be the games that define the remainder of Everton's season, even more so than their high-profile clashes with Manchesters City and United. Not only would two wins see the Toffees extend their winning streak to a phenomenal eight games, but it would place them five points ahead of Arsenal with four games remaining - a significant, potentially decisive margin.

More to the point though, the two games this week represent precisely the sort of test in which Everton have come up short, not just under Roberto Martinez, but in the preceding years under David Moyes as well. The return fixture against Palace - a horrendous 0-0 - was one of the Blues' worst performances of this campaign, whilst Sunderland remain the only opposition to have taken three points away from Goodison Park this season, albeit in extenuating circumstances following Tim Howard's early red card.

Everton have rarely struggled to raise their game against top-tier opponents, especially at home, as victories over Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United in recent seasons will attest. Rather it is against less auspicious competitors that the Toffees have struggled. Indeed, should Martinez's side narrowly miss out on their top four objective, it will be games such as these, as opposed to the losses against Liverpool and City, that will be viewed as the missed opportunities in what has been such a promising season.

Saturday's trip to the Stadium of Light then, is just as important as the seminal game against Arsenal last weekend. There are still three points available, the fans' expectations are still just as high, and the margin for error is still just as slim. It's the biggest game since the last biggest game of the season, and winning it might just be Everton's most important result of the year.