Everton limps to the finish line

Not long ago, Everton fans were dreaming of League Cup glory, UEFA Cup glory, and/or a top four finish in the Premier League that would put the club into next season’s Champions League. In a few weeks all of these dreams went up in smoke, and the focus turned to holding off Portsmouth for fifth place, and an automatic spot in next seasons’ UEFA Cup (the second-tier European competition).

Suffering from the fatigue that comes with constant cup competition, the quality of our play made even this more modest aim problematic. Fortunately, Portsmouth, which itself was fighting its way to the FA Cup final, played even worse in the league. But then, from back in the pack, came Aston Villa. Unburdened by “fixture-overload,” the Villains went on a run that brought them within three points (one win) of Everton. Two weeks ago, we nearly put them away, but Villa equalized in the dying minutes at Goodison Park. The following week, we went down at Arsenal, and only Wigan’s upset victory over Villia enabled us to maintain our three point lead.

Tomorrow is the final match of the Premier League season. Only an Everton loss at home to Newcastle (a mid-table team with nothing to play for) and a win by Villa at West Ham (a mid-table with nothing to play for) will deny us fifth place. But given recent form, I’ll be holding my breath.

The marathon character of European soccer can take its toll on better, deeper clubs than Everton. In late March, Arsenal had realistic hopes of winning the Premier League and the Champions League. In a ten day period both dreams died. In Scotland, Rangers’ seemingly insurmountable lead over Celtic has largely evaporated as Rangers continue to do battle in three different cup competitions (recently they beat Fiorentina, penalty kick conquerors of Everton, on (yes) penalty kicks to make the finals of the UEFA Cup).

Tomorrow will also determine the English Premier champion. Manchester United and Chelsea are level on points, but Man U has a vastly superior goal difference. Thus, the Mancs need only achieve the same result as Chelsea. Since their oppostion will come from Wigan (safe from relegation after their victory over Villa), only a monumental upset would see Chelsea through.

Man U and Chelsea will then meet in a week-and-a-half for the European Championship. When it’s all over, one of these two great sides may (like Arsenal) end up having won nothing. But at least it won’t be because one team was more exhausted than the other.

UPDATE: The results are in. Everton captured fifth place, defeating Newcastle 3-1. Yakubu had two goals, but the decisive one came from Everton’s player of the year, Joleon Lescott, in the 70th minute. Lescott ends the Premiership season with 8 goals, second highest on the club, which is quite remarkable for a defender.

In other news, Man U won the title with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Wigan. Chelsea could only draw with lowly Bolton, but given Man U’s goal difference a win would not have been enough.

The biggest drama came, as usual, at the low end of the table. Fulham (aka team America) was 15 minutes from the drop when veteran Danny Murphy, a former Liverpool mainstay, scored against Portsmouth to keep Fulham up. It was truly a great escape — Fulham seemed dead a few weeks ago, but closed with three straight wins (in hindsight, though, the comeback really began in mid-March when Fulham defeated Everton), Despite winning today, Birmingham and Reading go down instead of Fulham, along with dreadful Derby County which has been doomed for months.

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