Becoming a domestic cup champion not only represented the Toffees’ final hope of securing silverware this season, but also was Everton’s clearest path back into European competition for 2017-18. As most know, the winner of the FA Cup qualifies for the following season’s Europa League — with that loss, we know for certain that it won’t be Everton.
The prevailing wisdom following the elimination was that Everton is left with essentially nothing to play for — the team is well above a relegation battle, but much too far off the pace for the top-six, generally the places needed to make it into Europe.
As appealing a narrative that may be for sadistic Evertonians like ourselves, it isn’t entirely accurate. Everton still has a very viable, though convoluted, path into next year’s Europa League.
Let’s start with a brief overview of the European places for those who are unfamiliar. The top three finishers in the English Premier League earn an automatic ticket into the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stage. The fourth-place finisher qualifies for the CL as well, but must survive a home-and-away playoff to make it into the CL group stage.
That dream departed long ago, so don’t worry too much about the top four - the Toffees are nine points off the fourth spot, with sixteen games left to play.
England’s fifth-place finisher qualifies for the Europa League group stage, as does the FA Cup winner. The winner of the EFL Cup enters in the Europa League in the third qualifying round — this team must survive two home-and-away playoffs before qualifying for the group stage.
That leaves us with a layout that looks like this:
No room for Everton in this particular table; but, things get more interesting when the rows in this table start to overlap. You might be wondering what happens if a team meets both of these criteria — for instance, if the first-place team in the Premier League also wins the FA Cup — obviously that team isn’t going to play in both competitions.
UEFA’s Regulations of the UEFA Europa League 2015-18 Cycle addresses this issue in Article 3.04 (emphasis and paragraphs breaks mine):
If the winner of the domestic cup qualifies for the UEFA Champions League or the UEFA Europa League via the domestic championship, the highest ranking nonqualified domestic championship club qualifies for the UEFA Europa League at the stage initially reserved for the lowest ranking top domestic championship representative.
If the winner of the domestic cup qualifies for UEFA Champions League, the access stage initially reserved for the domestic cup winner is reserved for the club which finishes the domestic championship in the highest position out of all the clubs which qualify for the UEFA Europa League from the association concerned.
In both cases each representative of the domestic championship then enters the competition at the stage initially reserved for the domestic championship representative ranked immediately above it.
In short, if a domestic cup champion (the FA Cup and EFL Cup) has already qualified for a European place, either in the Champions League or Europa League, that team’s domestic-cup-earned Europa League spot is then passed on to the highest ranked team in the league that hasn’t already qualified.
The upshot? If two top-six teams win both the FA Cup and EFL Cup, the seventh-placed team in the Premier League would qualify for the Europa League. Right now, that club is Everton.
The Toffees would enter the competition in England’s lowest qualifying place — the third qualifying round — but provided Koeman prioritized the competition before the 2017-18 Premier League season began, Everton would likely face few threats before the group stage.
The FA Cup is still very much up in the air, but Everton supporters should be confident that a top-six team will take the competition. Since Everton last won the FA Cup in 1994-95, only two teams from outside the season’s top six have won England’s domestic cup — Portsmouth in 2007-08 and Wigan Athletic in 2012-13.
The semi-finals in the EFL Cup just concluded, with Manchester United set to play Southampton for the trophy on February 26. Provided Everton doesn’t catch Jose Mourinho’s team for sixth place, the Red Devils will finish sixth at worst, meaning they would already qualify for a European slot if a top-six team wins the FA Cup.
In short then, this is where things stand — Everton can still make the Europa League even without finishing in the top six, if all of the following occur:
- Everton finishes 7th in the Premier League
- A team from the season-end top six (likely Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Manchester United) wins the FA Cup
- Manchester United beats Southampton in the EFL Cup Final.
For now, all we can do is hope the Toffees continue their hot run of form and maintain their position. In February, Evertonians must root for Manchester United to take home the EFL Cup, and then for a top-six team to win the FA Cup. If things play out in this way, Everton should be back in European competition next season.