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Everton and West Ham epitomise the seventh-place complex

In these sort of games, it is invariably a question of whose desire is greater. Everton’s, it transpired, was the answer this time around

West Ham United v Everton FC - Premier League
Everton overtook West Ham in the table with their 2-0 victory on Saturday
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Perhaps this is all Leicester City’s fault. Perhaps, in truth, the most spectacular miracle of modern-day English football was simultaneously the apogee and the nadir of the Premier League era.

Certainly from a competitive viewpoint, anyway. Because, as the world and his wife will tell you, there will never be another season quite like 2015/16, when Andrea Bocelli serenaded the unlikely lads, when a non-league regular sent goalscoring records tumbling, when it all made Tom Hanks – allegedly, anyway – even richer.

Leicester City v Everton - Premier League
Jamie Vardy and Leicester pulled off one of football’s most unprecedented achievements in 2016
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It wasn’t just the Foxes’ 5000-1 title triumph, either. Under Ronald Koeman, Southampton’s resurgence continued, securing sixth place, their highest finish since 1985, while West Ham United, embodied by the unmatched flair of Dimitri Payet and East End grit of Mark Noble, finished in a respectable seventh, having long looked an outside bet for a Champions League spot.

That campaign was only three years ago, yet feels like a season from an altogether different era. Since then the rich continue to get richer, doubling down on ensuring they can never be embarrassed by the top-flight’s also-rans again. Pep Guardiola arrived; José Mourinho returned. Spending sprees –Tottenham Hotspur aside, obviously – were embarked on. All in the name of ensuring the unthinkable could never happen again.

Since 2016/17, the top six has been strictly cordoned off from the rest of the league. Everton have briefly threatened to intrude on the Premier League’s new world order in Koeman’s early days in charge of the Toffees and again this term under Silva, but otherwise, the 14 peasants in England’s top tier have been condemned to scampering about in search of more hollow victories.

Finishing seventh, then, has become one such crumb of comfort, yet even that has its pitfalls. And rarely has one Premier League game typified both its riches and its drawbacks than Everton’s visit to West Ham this weekend, a match between two sides who conceivably end up in that very spot at the conclusion of this campaign.

West Ham United v Everton FC - Premier League
Everton eased past West Ham on Saturday
Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

At the London Stadium on Saturday, the Blues were excellent and fully deserved their 2-0 victory, playing with a freedom and vigour too often eluding them in recent months; the pinnacle of Silva’s first season on Merseyside which has seen, albeit sporadically, one of last season’s most anaemic outfits begin to blend style with substance.

Never has that been more evident than in Saturday’s triumph. Consistent Lucas Digne and the dazzling Bernard worked in tandem in a way rarely seen down Everton’s left flank since the halcyon days of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar; André Gomes and Idrissa Gueye orchestrated proceedings from midfield effortlessly; and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, though still clearly a rough diamond, again led the line admirably.

For Silva, a man who at times this campaign has looked on the brink, seventh place must represent vindication. Not only for himself, that he bettered the much-maligned Sam Allardyce’s finish of eighth last term, but also for owner Farhad Moshiri, who has rightly, at least to some extent, had to justify appointing a man sacked and relegated in his only other two stints in England.

But if Everton acted as if they had a point to prove, West Ham certainly made their own point. Just not one their fans would have hoped for.

For the Hammers, befuddled and outplayed from the first minute, you wonder whether the necessity is quite as great. With their 60,000-seater stadium and £80 million summer transfer window outlay, owners David Gold and David Sullivan are nothing if not ambitious. Ostensibly, everything should be in place for them to go toe-to-toe with clubs like Everton.

West Ham United v Everton FC - Premier League
Marko Arnautović is one of West Ham’s many recent expensive signings, but was anonymous on Saturday
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

But, on the back of a 13th-place finish last year, does the security of manager Manuel Pellegrini’s job really depend as much as Silva’s on whether he can secure European football? If the respective performances of both sides in Stratford on Saturday night is anything to go by, then probably not.

Of course, the main shortcoming of claiming England’s final European place is the build-up of matches right from the get-go; the circuitous route to only reach the competition proper; the travails of the Thursday – Sunday cycle which nobody can quite find the remedy for.

But while European football brings progress, hope, and amid an often-joyless morass of mediocrity domestically, a genuine sense of excitement. West Ham seemingly did their best to avoid the inevitable venture into an obscure pocket of Eastern Europe in early July. Everton, meanwhile, looked as if they were restlessly waiting to book their flights.

Silva will say, publicly at least, that he has designs on seventh place, and so he should, even if, privately, he may have understandable qualms as to whether the early start would make for ideal preparation in what will surely be another expensive assault on the top table next year.

West Ham United v Everton FC - Premier League
Things seem to be looking up for Silva and Everton again
Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

For what’s it worth, the Blues may yet fall short in their challenge for seventh; Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester and Watford FC will certainly pose their own threats in that regard. For that, certain sections of Evertonians may rejoice, or at least be mildly relieved.

Pellegrini may not be enamoured with the prospect of it, but for Silva, seventh would buy him the credibility he desperately needs, and afford him a base from which to plan next year’s blueprint, when a more sustained attempt to dislodge one of the top six must be the minimum requirement.

Because, as Claudio Ranieri’s pizza-earning mavericks proved, what pleasure can you derive from football without a dream to cling on to?