Everton face uphill task just to stand still

Written by Reuters | London | Updated: Aug 8 2014, 17:31pm hrs
Everton finished fifth last season with a club Premier League record of 72 points that would have earned them a Champions League spot in any other year, yet their prospects of cracking the top four look as slim as ever.

Despite holding on to their best players and securing one or two promising new ones Everton still look under-powered for the long haul in comparison with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, who finished above them last season and have bolstered their squads.

Manchester United are unlikely to be as bad under Louis van Gaal as they were when finishing seventh while Tottenham Hotspur (sixth) will also expect their hugely expensive squad to start gelling after an inconsistent campaign.

So with a potentially distracting Europa League campaign on the horizon, manager Roberto Martinez faces an enormous challenge to match last year's impressive campaign, let alone gatecrash the Champions League party for the first time in 10 years.

Despite those harsh realities, however, there is a real feelgood factor around Goodison Park.

Spending a club record 28 million pounds ($47.14 million) on Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku after his spell last season on loan from Chelsea was a real statement of intent, particularly as no sales were deemed necessary to finance the deal.

Everton fans have always had a soft spot for a big centre forward and Lukaku was hugely popular as he gave the team a real attacking focal point, scoring 15 goals in 29 league games.

Gareth Barry, who brought structure and stability to the side last season, is also now on staff after a year on loan from Manchester City, while 21-year-old Bosnian Muhamed Besic, a 4 million-pound signing from Ferencvaros, has made an immediate impact in pre-season friendlies.

"For a player to feel at home so quickly is incredible," Martinez said of the new man's impressive displays.

"It shows you his confidence in himself, his quality and the understanding of the players around him. He has looked like a player who had been at Everton for three years."

Breaking into Everton's midfield will not be an easy task, however, after last season's impressive performances when the fans were treated to exhilarating creative play after years of dour but efficient battling under David Moyes.

Teenager Ross Barkley is at the centre of it and the player the fans want to see more of, particularly after he signed a four-year contract extension.

Martinez, who also signed a new contract this year, described the midfielder as a "diamond of English football" and used him sparingly last season. But buoyed by a taste of the World Cup, Barkley is likely to be increasingly on duty.

Everton start their season away to promoted Leicester City and then host Chelsea and Arsenal.

Last season they won both those testing Goodison Park fixtures, beating Chelsea 1-0 early in the campaign and hammering Arsenal 3-0 in April in one of their best performances for years.

A repeat of those wins before September is out will keep the club buzzing, but if the results go the other way it could indicate a long, hard fight ahead.