August 21, 2014

A week after definitively severing the string on the final trophy hope of one of English football's big four, Everton have a shot at effectively doing the same for another.

It doesn't seem right that it's Arsenal, who so recently were contenders for as many as three.

Nothing will be definitive in the Premier League for quite some time, but a fourth straight match without three points could put the Gunners as far back as fifth in the table after Saturday's trip to Goodison Park.

That's unlikely, but so is the eight-match span across three competitions that's put them here. It includes Sunday's shock exit from the FA Cup after Arsene Wenger employed a side with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at the Emirates Stadium, yet lost 2-1 to 14th-place Watford and saw their two-year hold of the trophy come to an end.

It was far less of a surprise they were unable to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit in their Champions League tie with Barcelona and went out 5-1 on aggregate after Wednesday's second leg at the Camp Nou, exiting the competition for the sixth consecutive season in the round of 16.

"We played against the team with the best strikers I have seen," Wenger said. "The three together (Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar) are exceptional. Messi is incredible. They are two or three players who transform normal life into art."

So the focus shifts solely to the Premier League with a troubling reality there as well. A loss at Goodison and a Leicester City win at miserable Crystal Palace would drop the Gunners 14 points back of the front-running Foxes with eight matches remaining, albeit with one in hand.

"We're still up for the league," Mohamed Elneny told the club's official website. "We need to focus. We still have nine games to go and God willing we can do it."

Adding to the task is the fact Everton are probably the last bottom-half club any manager wants to see at the moment. The Toffees, whose plus-12 goal difference is more in line with a club competing for a Champions League spot, sent hard-charging Chelsea out of the FA Cup with a 2-0 win Saturday at Goodison Park. Everton are onto the semifinals against either Manchester United or West Ham United next month at Wembley Stadium but are for the moment focusing their energies on a demanding league stretch that next takes them to Old Trafford on April 3 following the international break.

"It's massively important for us to use the momentum from last weekend," winger Aaron Lennon, Arsenal's former north London derby foe, told Everton's official website. "It will be a great game. Both sides still have a lot to play for, and they will be looking to bounce back after a disappointing result last weekend. But we'll be ready for them and there's a big incentive now to really kick on and get right up there where we belong in the league."

Romelu Lukaku has done his part all along. The Belgium striker scored both against the Blues, his former club, and has five on a four-match scoring streak in both competitions. His top-flight total of 18 is a personal best for any club season and one back of Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane for the league lead, though only three have been match-winners.

While Everton have won six of their last eight across both competitions by an 18-5 total, the blemishes have come in two of their last three league matches - both at home, where nearly all of the Toffees' struggles in the division have come. Their 16 home points are better than only Palace (14) and foot-of-the-table Aston Villa (10), and their defence ranks last with 26 goals conceded in 15 matches - one goal shy of the 2000-01 club record for a 38-match season.

As satisfying as the cup progression may have been, manager Roberto Martinez recognises the need for Everton - 12th in the table on 38 points - to finally display consistent form in the league, even if the FA Cup is the more logical path to Europe.

"We need to get back into victories feeling or having the feeling of satisfaction," said Martinez, whose club sandwiched a win at Villa between defeats to West Bromwich Albion and top-four contenders West Ham. "And clearly Arsenal, still a team that are fighting for the title. ... We're playing at home. We're playing at Goodison, and we want to make sure we get what we deserve if we perform well."

Arsenal won the reverse fixture 2-1 on Oct. 24 with Olivier Giroud scoring in a third straight match versus Everton. It was part of a five-match winning streak in the league for Arsenal, and it stands as Everton's lone away defeat as well as the last time the Toffees dropped consecutive league matches. What has changed since then is the reputation of Arsenal as they go for a first league double over the Toffees since 2011-12.

"At that point everyone was saying that they were the best team and the best squad in the league," Martinez said. "The level that they showed that game clearly went along with the way they finished the season in the previous campaign.

"I think it's been a bit of an up and down season in their results, but the quality that they have in their squad is clear - one of the most purest or pristine way of playing football that you're going to see in a Premier League team. In that respect, it's about how good we can be on the day."

Gareth Barry was sent off in stoppage time of the October match, and the midfielder will miss all 90 minutes of this one in the first of a two-match ban after being sent off against Chelsea, receiving a first yellow card in a much-publicised quarrel with Diego Costa before seeing a second three minutes later.

But unlike Arsenal, Everton are otherwise healthy and rested. The Gunners are still dealing with injuries to Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Calum Chambers, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and first-choice goalkeeper Petr Cech.

They may at least now take poignant solace in knowing rest won't be an issue with three competitions down to one in a matter of three days.

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