Five games. Two away, then two at Goodison Park, and then one last away day to determine what division Everton play their football in next season. But it’s a lot more than that, as relegation to the Championship will most certainly change the club as we know it.
The income levels are significantly lower when you face the drop, and the Blues will have to let at least half if not more of the current squad leave. The Toffees have already fallen foul of the Premier League’s Profit & Sustainability regulations as their current income to wages ratio is already unsustainable, and in the Championship those rules only get tighter.
While the club’s leadership insist that the new stadium project will continue unhindered whether Everton are relegated or not, it is quite clear that changes will have to be made no matter how the remainder of the season plays out. There are certainly no guarantees that the Blues will come back to the top flight right away, just as there are no assurances that we won’t be exactly in this position come next season.
The best part of all of this is that Everton’s future remains in their own hands — while they will be nervously watching the out-of-town scoreboard as they play, they can still be secure in the knowledge that if they win all their games, even if their immediate rivals Leeds United and Burnley win theirs, it won’t be the Blues going down.
The Blues have a game in hand over the pair of their closest rivals, and could be ahead of them both come Sunday evening, but could also be five points off the pace before they play that game in hand on Wednesday at Watford knowing their future is no longer in their own hands.
This is what makes Sunday’s trip to Leicester City this critical. Burnley are surging having hit a lode of form that has not been disrupted despite the surprise sacking of manager Sean Dyche, and on Saturday will host an Aston Villa side who have nothing to play for and will already have their minds on their summer vacations. Don’t put it past Steven Gerrard to trot out a bunch of youngsters in that one now that they have hit the forty-point mark. Maybe former Evertonian Lucas Digne can do us a solid and bang in a goal or two along with some assists.
The Blues are at the King Power Stadium on Sunday afternoon to take on Leicester while at the same time Leeds United are at Arsenal. The Gunners have been locked in a see-saw battle with Tottenham for the last Champions League spot, and sit two points ahead of their North London rivals and the two sides meet on Thursday to likely settle fourth place - Arsenal will want to ensure they go into that game with their two-point lead intact and do the Toffees a huge favour in the process.
Leicester meanwhile crashed out of the inaugural season of the Europa Conference League at the semi-final stage, losing somewhat unfairly to Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma on Thursday night in Rome. Brendan Rodgers had made it clear that the continental competition was the Foxes biggest priority, so it will be interesting to see how many of his first choice players he will trot out on Sunday, and if indeed they can summon up any sort of motivation with a European berth out of reach.
What Everton will need to prove though is that they have the bottle for a relegation fight, the way Burnley have done so well in the last few weeks starting with that comeback win over the Toffees at Turf Moor a month ago. To do that they will need to maintain the kind of intensity they showed against Chelsea on Sunday for the remainder of their schedule.
That starts with two away games in four days - at Leicester and then at Watford three days later. Considering the Blues’ last away point was in a mid-December draw at Chelsea when Rafa Benitez was still in charge, and their sole away win of the season was back in August at Brighton & Hove Albion, getting anything from these next pair of games will be a major feat.
Yet, nothing is impossible at this stage of the season, and it is indeed all in the players’ minds. If they can summon the will to get the job done then they should survive. That will come from playing mistake-free football especially in their own half, but also showing sheer resiliency and a mental toughness if they do end up going behind. We haven’t seen them show those characteristics away from Goodison this season, but a hotly-contested Merseyside Derby at Anfield and a battling performance against Chelsea might have finally got the players blood boiling.
It’s not all on the players however. Lampard has shown in recent games that he is starting to understand the limitations of his side and is lining his players up in formations with tactics where they can succeed against different opponents. With only Nathan Patterson and Andros Townsend as long-term injuries, having a fit and deep squad will be a big boost for the manager as they play five times in fourteen days. Being able to rotate the side, keeping key players fresh for when it matters the most will be almost as important as they spirit the players show on the pitch and the fans display in the stands.
Two home games after that against London sides Brentford and Crystal Palace — neither have anything to play for at this point of the season — pose an opportunity for the Blues to pick up six points and continue to fight their way out of the relegation zone.
Which then brings the Toffees to the last game of the season, at a place that has not been a happy hunting ground for Everton over the last couple of decades. Last season, behind closed doors, the Blues 1-0 win over Arsenal was their first ever victory at the Emirates. For perspective, the Gunners have been playing there since 2006, which should tell you how big a challenge Everton face if they will need to go to London to get a win for Premier League survival on the last day of the season, especially if the hosts are themselves still contending for a Champions League berth.
All five remaining games for the Blues present different challenges, and none can really be considered more or less important than the others, just that Everton will need to kick and claw and pick up points any way they can in every one of those, and hope they have done enough in a season where the widely-quoted 40-point benchmark might not be enough to secure safety.