Climbing the Mountain

Mount Everest has suffered a bit of a PR nightmare this year.

The Nepalese government handing out a record number of permits to climb the famous mountain led to a massive influx in inexperienced or unequipped climbers. Masses of people flocked near the summit, queuing in the ‘death zone’. None could progress, neither could they turn back. In essence, there was a race to the top which nobody looked able to win.

This is a really weak analogy for the challenge for European spots in the Premier League. But hey, I’m going with it.

Manchester City and Liverpool are streets ahead of the rest – that much is clear. Below them, there was an almost torturous battle for the two remaining Champions League places.

Spurs, threatening to keep pace with the top two for a short while, ended up limping into fourth. Chelsea – whose only Premier League away wins in the first half of 2019 would come against sides that ended up getting relegated – somehow ended the season in third.

Below them, Arsenal and Manchester United competed to see who could commit the most impressive hara-kiri on their own aspirations. United won – just.

Annoyingly, Everton weren’t close to the action, mostly thanks to yet another bleak winter. But while we find ourselves a fair bit back in the queue for the summit, are we so certain that those jostling for the top spots are better-equipped to guide themselves there?

Let’s take a look.

Wolves & Leicester

Everton spent most of the season battling it out with Watford, West Ham, Leicester and Wolves. The Toffees finished above the former three but couldn’t pip Nuno Espirito Santo’s side to seventh.

It means that the Jorge Mendes Select XI are in the Europa League this year. There are the star names – Rui Patricio, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Raul Jimenez et al – balanced out by the likes of Matt Doherty and Conor Coady. They all gelled perfectly in an ideal first season back in the Premier League.

That being said, second season syndrome is a thing no matter how high you finish at the first attempt. Reading finished eighth in 2006/07 and went down the year after. Ipswich were fifth in May 2001 and relegated in May 2002.

Wolves look too strong, and are too well-backed, to suffer the same fate. Embarking on an arduous Europa League campaign, coupled with questionable squad depth, could mean they can’t keep up the same impressive tempo as in 2018/19.

Leicester, meanwhile, have signed a handful of players and are suddenly a hot tip to crack the top six. It’s the hottest of takes at this stage. Yes, Brendan Rodgers is a more popular manager than Claude Puel. But this is still a team that managed to lose eight games both at home and away last season. Those cracks haven’t disappeared.

Do we worry about Watford? Maybe. Javi Gracia has done a good job, and the Hornets look more solid defensively than under Marco Si-erm, I mean, former managers.

Do we worry about West Ham? Hahahaha. No.

Manchester United

Some empires crumble over centuries, some are decimated in a relative blink of an eye. Manchester United, it seems, are staggering about like Julius Caesar trying to shake off a couple of niggling dagger wounds.

Led first by Jose Mourinho, and then by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Red Devils lost seven away league games last season. That’s the same as Newcastle.

There are some baffling results in the mix as well. A 2-0 defeat at home to Cardiff. 2-2 at home to Burnley. A 3-2 reverse at Brighton. They were also hammered 4-0 by a left-footed French pixie and his associates.

If the season was a hot mess, the summer transfer window has only furthered the hilariously dramatic omnibus. Paul Pogba wants out. Romelu Lukaku’s done what he does on international breaks. Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka would be fantastic signings if United weren’t in more desperate need of a massive squad overhaul.

Here’s how I rate Everton’s chances of challenging Manchester United. United could still have Phil Jones in their starting line-up next season. Need I say more?

Arsenal

For a long time, we’ve thought of Arsenal fans as reactionary, overdramatic, spoilt brats, who expect the world and brand their team a disgrace at the drop of a hat.

Well, they still are. But they’ve kind of got a point now.

Arsenal managed to go 14 league games unbeaten at one stage of the season, and stay in the top six from Matchday Six onwards, while still looking like a bit of a shambles.

A tilt at the top four was blown off course by meek defeats to Everton, Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester – all in April. That’s the impression you get with Arsenal; when they lose, it’s with a whimper.

They’re still mostly excellent at home. Teams looking to finish above the Gunners need to go to the Emirates Stadium and take three points home. It’s something Everton have never managed.

Chelsea

Having successfully railroaded the forward-thinking manager who disgraced them by gleaning third place and the Europa League title out of town, Chelsea have turned to…Frank Lampard?

Having adorned his CV with the achievement of leading Derby to exactly the same season as Derby have every year, Lampard is now tasked with keeping the Blues in the top four.

Christian Pulisic is likely to be the only new player coming through the doors at Stamford Bridge, thanks to a transfer ban. But like an army of the undead, Chelsea can summon a shambling mass of loanees back into the fold.

Without the Thursday-Sunday schedule enforced by the Europa League, and without the in-fighting that plagued last season, Chelsea might feel more comfortable going for third than last season.

Then again, it’s Chelsea. Dressing room turmoil is as common for them as fan racism. Everton aren’t likely to get close to the London outfit unless they have a collapse, like in 2015/16.

Still finished above us then, didn’t they? F*** off Everton.

Spurs

Is it weird that Tottenham Hotspur lost as many Premier League matches in 2018/19 as Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea combined?

Yeah. It is a bit.

The same Spurs team that reached the Champions League final and drew just two league games all season also picked up 11 points from a possible 36 in the latter stages of the season.

In reality, it’s hard to see them dropping out of the top four. Spurs may lose Eriksen but they’ll retain Harry Kane, and they’re making moves in the transfer market this year. Tanguy Ndombele could be a game-changer for them.

They won three of their four league games at the new stadium (kudos, Cenk Tosun), so it seems like they’ll settle into a first full season in their new home without any worries.

Everton

Let us not forget the team most likely to scupper Everton’s chances: Everton.

We’re often laughed at when a manager or a player says the aim is the top four, or the top six. In recent times we’ve justified the mocking by repeatedly making the same mistakes.

Yet we head into a second season under Marco Silva where the only players leaving are the ones we want to leave (probably; question marks over Idrissa Gueye’s future persist). The incomings have all been positive.

A pragmatist will aim for seventh and focus on seeing off the likes of Wolves and Leicester. It’s not outside of the realms of possibility that Manchester United and Arsenal are in the firing line. Only a true optimist could see us chasing down Chelsea and Spurs.

Optimism might be a direct result of the last few games of the season, rather than genuine promise. And we could be subjected to the same dips in the form, the same mid-table struggle, the same tedious, hilarious ‘banter’ from across Stanley Park.

Why not aim high, though? Behind the new ‘big two’, there’s no team which can say with certainty how they’ll fare.

The opportunity is there if Everton can get themselves in a position to take it. And that’s the real quiz.

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