Everton have nine matches to play in the Premier League this season. They are six points off the top four and, potentially, a place in the Champions League. No team has won more points since the turn of the year. And yet, as the campaign enters the long final straight, the Toffees continue to be written off in terms of securing a seat at Europe’s top table.
Ronald Koeman has revitalised the Goodison Park outfit over the past three months, turning them from a side still recovering from the farcical end to Roberto Martinez’s reign into one of the most watchable sides in England, and arguably across the continent.
A group of young attacking players have finally begun to fulfil their potential while the solidity that evaporated under Martinez has finally returned, meaning Everton head to Anfield on Saturday as genuine top-four contenders.
Realistically, the Blues must avoid defeat against their local rivals, as well as at Old Trafford on Tuesday, to remain in the race, but their recent form suggests they have what it takes to ensure they are still part of the conversation by the end of next week.
In Romelu Lukaku they possess the Premier League’s form striker and Golden Boot race leader, while Ross Barkley has rediscovered the mojo many worried he may never get back.
Behind them, Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye form one of the best central midfield partnerships in the Premier League and the emergence of Tom Davies has prompted predictions that he could be a bolter for England’s World Cup squad in 2018.
Currently skippering the England Under-19 team that last week thrashed their Spanish counterparts, Davies' addition to the first team has almost directly correlated with Everton’s upturn in fortunes. The teenager’s willingness to move the ball forward at every opportunity has upped the tempo of the team’s attacking play while – as with most academy products – his appearances have helped galvanise a fanbase that were previously becoming restless.
Ademola Lookman, Mason Holgate and Dominic Calvert-Lewin have helped add even more youthful exuberance to Koeman’s Everton but if they are to be kept on Merseyside long-term, then they must become regular competitors in Europe, pushing for Champions League football on a consistent basis.
Lukaku’s decision to reject a new deal due to the club’s lack of ambition is further confirmation that they are punching below their weight despite the strength of the current top six, and remaining in the top-four race for as long as possible this season may well be the catalyst to a permanent mentality shift away from being happy enough with a top-half finish.
In terms of finishing in the top four this season, Everton hold all the cards. They still have to play their three main rivals for a fourth-placed finish in Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, albeit all away from home. Defeat to Spurs earlier this month suggested the Toffees still have a little way to go in terms of competing with the very best, but there are certainly flaws in the other sides they still have to play that can be preyed on.
Being knocked out of both domestic cups in the early rounds has also left Koeman’s side with a clear run through to the end of the campaign without the worry of rearranged fixtures hanging over their head, with Chelsea the only top-half side still to visit fortress Goodison Park.
Injuries to Schneiderlin and Seamus Coleman, as well as key squad players James McCarthy and Ramiro Funes Mori, over the past couple of weeks may have tempered expectations somewhat, but if Lukaku and Barkley can maintain their form going forward then Everton can beat almost any side in the division.
Though seventh place would likely secure a Europa League spot for next season, this is a club on the up following their purchase of a new stadium site at Bramley Moore. Capping off the campaign with a place in the top four would be a surprise achievement for Koeman in his first season in charge, but it is not out of reach.