Have a guess who is top of the Premier League form table over the past 10 games.
Chelsea? Close, but no. Tottenham? Try again. Manchester United, even? See where you’re going with that, but wrong.
The right answer is Everton. Like Spurs and Chelsea, they’ve taken 23 points from the last available 30, but have collected them by scoring more goals and conceding fewer than the top two in the table. They remain seventh, but quietly Ronald Koeman’s side have crept up to the edge of the Champions League places.
They’re currently six points away from Liverpool in fourth. And as they’re playing them this weekend, victory would put them within touching distance. The Merseyside derby rarely needs anything else to make it a meaningful encounter, but when Everton face Liverpool on Saturday lunchtime, there’s even more than usual at stake.
For the bulk of the season, much of the focus has been on who will take those coveted Champions League places behind champions-elect Chelsea. But while the candidatures of Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City have been discussed at length, not many noticed Everton creeping up behind them. With the competition so strong, Everton remain dark horses, particularly as they’ve played two more games than Arsenal and United. But if they can continue their brilliant recent performances, it’s perfectly possible they could make it.
If Koeman’s past experience has any bearing, there is hope for Everton from his previous job. At a similar stage last season, Southampton were eighth, a fair way adrift of the European places, but seven wins in their last nine games saw them finish the season in storming style and eventually end the season in fifth, qualifying for the Europa League.
“Normally, my teams are always in a good state until the end of the season,” said Koeman recently.
“That’s what we try to plan — that’s important. You have more possibilities to win the game if the team is really fit.”
Admittedly that carefully omits the previous season with Southampton, when they fell from a high of third place in February to a final position of seventh, but his Feyenoord teams tended to finish strongly before he moved to England.
They might need a strong finish, too. After the Liverpool game on Saturday, they travel to Old Trafford on Tuesday, with Chelsea, and there’s a final day trip to Arsenal on the schedule as well.
Champions League qualification this season would be ahead of schedule for Everton.
“I think we can make the next step next season,” said Koeman recently when asked about their chances. But while it would be an overachievement, particularly in such a crowded field, that overachievement might be necessary.
The summer ahead is a potentially pivotal one for them. With a collection of excellent young players like Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, plus a smattering of more established stars and a manager finding his stride after a sticky opening few months, the future looks bright.
But those established stars will be staples of the gossip pages in those barren May-August months. Romelu Lukaku has already declined to sign a new contract, questioning whether the club had the ambition to match his own.
“You need the platform to show yourself,” he said. “Then you are talking about Champions League and whatever types of games.”
His agent, Mino Raiola, doesn’t exactly count reticence among his qualities, particularly about the prospect of his own players furthering their careers, so don’t expect talk of a move away to be dampened down.
While the club have entered talks with Ross Barkley about his own deal, Koeman’s recent update didn’t exactly inspire confidence that those negotiations were going brilliantly.
“He needs to sign a new contract, or you sell the player,” said Koeman. “It’s not an ultimatum. It is up to the club to get the deal over the line. Yes or no — it is a decision by the player.”
Both of these stars could feasibly leave in the summer in search of bigger things. But Champions League qualification could change that. Those players want to perform on that stage, so what better argument could they present to Lukaku and Barkley than bringing the continent’s best and brightest to Goodison Park?
A top-four finish could also motivate the manager to stay. The past few seasons have made Koeman a coveted coach, and with a vacancy at his alma mater Barcelona coming up, he has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Luis Enrique. Even with Champions League football at Everton, it would be difficult for him to turn the Catalans down, but it would at least give him pause for thought and would certainly offer more encouragement to turn other jobs down.
As things stand, the future — both short- and long-term — looks pretty bright for Everton. But the continuation of that promise beyond this summer might well depend on whether they can overachieve and reach the top four. If not, they could be in for a summer of upheaval; perhaps not quite back to square one, but certainly not forward.