For eighty minutes, Everton were doing their absolute best to keep the FA Cup quarterfinal tie even. It was truly a real nail-biting, scoreless affair at Goodison Park. Yet upon the eighty minute mark, when the substitution that brought Kevin De Bruyne onto the pitch for Raheem Sterling was finally executed, one had a sense that the most effective of reinforcements had arrived to ignite the Citizens; what would the Toffees be able to do against this most powerful unit, now reinforced further?
Nothing as it turns out. While Manchester City would end up with two goals before the match was complete, with one from De Bruyne himself, the loss should not reflect as poorly upon Everton as it should demonstrate the true power of their opposition. While the 3-1 loss in the league last month was a frustrating tie to watch, even the average, casual fan likely would’ve noticed the commitment to team defense throughout the entire FA Cup quarterfinal match. While mistakes were made, it is obvious that the Blues are still in the process of growing towards the level Pep Guardiola has had City running at for years now; positives can be taken away from this loss however, even though it means that the hunt for silverware continues without success for another campaign.
Everton continue to feel growing pains, but growth is the name of the game
Without James Rodriguez and Abdoulaye Doucoure on the right hand of the pitch, the Toffees greatest consistent issue against Manchester City surely was their affinity to give the ball away. While one cannot know for certain whether they might’ve made a profound difference in the match, their loss likely left both creativity and possession off of the pitch; against a squad like City, a club needs all of each that they can muster without question.
And so, whether on attempted breaks, or as a result of poor clearances, these mistakes gave the best team in England even more opportunities to control possession and pressure the contracted Everton defense. To this point, the Toffees barely had twenty-three percent of possession at halftime. Therefore it is likely a testament to the will of the club that we were able to keep the score level until just ten minutes remained in regulation; it became clear during this eighty minute span that scoring would be exceedingly difficult, if not a result of some serious error by the visitors. Everton showed a real commitment to playing team defense against City, and on a different day it might’ve been enough to win the day. However their third string goalkeeper, Portugal Under-21 international Joao Virginia, deserves great praise as well.
On a day where neither Jordan Pickford, Everton and England’s number one goalkeeper, nor Robin Olsen, his backup, were available against one of the hottest and most powerful teams in all of European football, the Toffees were not really let down in their net. Given his experience and the level of competition he was asked to compete against, his performance deserves respect; play of that caliber against a team of less quality likely would’ve seen him collect a victory at the very least, with a clean sheet not an impossibility either. Both goals were difficult to blame on the keeper, and even one earlier tally for the home team might’ve changed the trajectory of the affair; as it stands however, despite the proper play across the squad, the People’s Club could not score, and therefore find themselves out of the FA Cup at the quarterfinal stage.
The Premier League on the other hand, beckons Everton back, with just ten games left to secure a crucial berth in a European competition for next season. The road will not be an easy one, yet it remains possible as I’ve covered in past pieces; without any focus on any other obligation, it should be full-steam-ahead towards a top six finish for the club.
A Top Six Finish: What it will entail
With the loss to City and no further competitions other than the Premier League to worry about, there are ten games remaining across a roughly three month span. In my opinion, the club needs to win at least sixty percent of their remaining games (six of ten matches) to find themselves in some type of European competition next season; with three to choose from instead of the previous two, even the Europa Conference League would be positive, although shooting for the Europa League is my preference and likely that of the staff and squad as well.
Going six for ten during this final stretch of the campaign supposes that the Toffees beat teams other than Crystal Palace, Brighton or Sheffield United of course; the four games between the aforementioned, concerning Tottenham, Arsenal, Aston Villa and West Ham will likely go a long way in determining the top of the English Premier League table, and should Everton make it through this patch with three victories, nine points, that match against the Blades should appear mouthwatering. Victories, for example, against Palace, Brighton, Tottenham, Villa and West Ham, as well as against Sheffield United, would give the Toffees the six victories and eighteen points that I believe could qualify them into the Europa League with a fifth place finish, yet with three more matches remaining, there would still be time to maneuver if necessary.
Wolves will be a challenge, as will the previously postponed, and hitherto unscheduled match against Aston Villa from earlier in the campaign, but both will pale in comparison to the massive challenge that the third date with Manchester City undoubtedly will be; that is currently scheduled as the final match of the Premier League campaign for Everton. While City will likely have won the title weeks before, it remains to be seen how exactly they would go about their last game. It would mean nothing for Manchester City to lose, and would mean everything for Everton to win, yet it strikes this writer as foolhardy to suggest that Pep and his Citizens would not make every attempt to do just as they’ve done twice before this season versus the Toffees. What better way to cap off a championship than with a victory?
Should the European prospects of Everton boil down to one match against Manchester City, it would take a truly heroic performance to wrestle three points from them. To do so, they will have to take every lesson learned from across the entire era of Don Carlo Ancelotti’s time at Everton, yet we have seen the resilience of this club continue to build and develop. While a victory and three points would take a Herculean effort, I do not put it past the Toffees to be capable of doing so; nothing is impossible ultimately, so long as every ounce of effort is unleashed when it absolutely must be.