LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 13: Nikica Jelavic of Everton celebrates after scoring the second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Newcastle United at Goodison Park on May 13, 2012 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Stop me if you've heard this before. If Everton want to challenge for a European spot, they'll need to get off to a fast start and stay healthy.
Everton are the annual great enigma of the English Premier League. There's no doubting the talent and David Moyes's ability to squeeze every last ounce of success from his teams, but they just seem to be the ultimate in chronic underachievement...or is it over achievement?
Year after year Everton stumble out out of the blocks and dig themselves deep in to the table before reviving sometime around the Christmas holidays and going on a tremendous run of form in the spring to salvage the season. Everton's fans spend April and May asking themselves what might have been if the Toffees could only start a season like they finish them. You might say it takes a special kind of psychoses to be an Evertonian.
As the curtain prepares to raise on the new season, Everton is once again a team that could challenge for a European spot, but will probably just end up in the mid table where they always seem to settle these days. If I could explain this team's amazing capacity for being unable to start a season off with any fire, I feel I'd be a rich man. Instead, I'm left shaking my head like so many other people who have tried to figure this out.
So the question is, can this year be different and the answer is probably not. Everton has talent on paper, but turning that potential into consistent results is the trick. Nikica Jelavic, who was superb after joining the club from Rangers last January, anchors a reinvigorated attack force. Joining the Croatian is former Rangers teammate Steven Naismith who will likely fill the role vacated by the transfer of Tim Cahill to the New York Red Bulls. Steven Pienaar is back for real this time, re-signing with Everton from Spurs. Combine those names with Marouane Fellaini and Darren Gibson in the midfield, along with Leighton Baines bombing down the wing, and there's reason to believe this Everton side could score some goals.
They aren't bad defensively either with Dutch international John Heitinga and Phil Jagielka anchoring a defense in front of the consistent Tim Howard in goal. Captain Phil Neville is a positive influence on the team and if youngsters like Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley can step-up, this team could go far...but they probably won't.
Something inevitably sabotages Everton every year and there are two candidates this season for the seemingly inevitable derailment: a bad start, as previously discussed, or injuries. Moyes simply cannot afford any major injuries because he has virtually no squad depth. You'll likely get a variety of answers from Evertonians as to the reason for that lack of depth, but the most likely focus of blame will be Bill Kenwright, the team's chairman and if you ask some, the team's arch-villain.
Kenwright deserves a lion share of the blame for Everton's economic woes but he also deserves a level of credit for managing to keep Moyes at the club for as long as he has. Make no mistake, if Moyes left, Everton would be in serious trouble.
So if the Toffees can sign another player or two with the money made selling Jack Rodwell on to Manchester City, there just might be enough in the cupboard to make Everton a contender for a Europa League spot. They're going to need some luck, they're going to need to a good start and they're going to need some of their oft-injured players to not be oft-injured for a change. Moyes will also need his team to do what they seem to do best, out perform expectations. The trick will be out performing expectations from opening day to May, rather than from January to May.
Last year: 7th; 15W 11D 12L.
Key player(s): Nikica Jelavic & Steven Pienaar. Jelavic is Everton's number one offensive weapon and he'll be asked to shoulder a massive scoring load for this team. How well Jelavic is able to find the back of the net will go along way towards determining Everton's success. As for Pienaar, no one questions the talent, but he needs to be more consistent for the Toffees. His amazing month following by a disappearing act for a month act won't cut it if Everton want to get back in to Europe. If Jelavic and Pienaar can both have big years statistically, there's no reason the Toffees can't find themselves higher than they probably should be.
SB Nation blog: Royal Blue Mersey.