I’ve been harping on the race for the UEFA Cup spots all season, especially lately since it looks like only two (one through league finish, one possibly through the Intertoto Cup) and possibly three (depending on UEFA Fair Play table results) teams will qualify for Europe’s second-tier club competition. Results in the Carling Cup and FA Cup haven’t really helped teams from 5th-10th place this season but have created a battle to finish in 5th and 6th.
Everton squandered an opportunity to really put a stranglehold on 5th today after their 1-1 draw with West Ham. Portsmouth, in 6th place, and Aston Villa, in 7th, both lost to lower-placed teams earlier in the day and with a win, Everton could’ve gone nine points clear of Pompey and ten of Villa, Blackburn, and Manchester City, which effectively would’ve ended the chances of those last three teams to finish 5th. Instead, Dean Ashton’s equalizer for the Hammers (which Tim Howard should’ve saved) earned the East London club a share of the spoils and left the door open for the four teams I just mentioned.
There’s a big difference between a 7-8 point and 9-10 point deficit, especially with so few games remaining in the season to bridge that gap. I’m not saying that Everton isn’t in the driver’s seat, but they had the opportunity to slam the door on three of the teams nipping at their heels and couldn’t get the job done. The Toffees should’ve beaten West Ham, a team that has been awful lately and has nothing to play for, soundly at home today but they didn’t.
Now, Portsmouth and Aston Villa have a decent chance to catch Everton because Liverpool’s second-most famous club has a difficult schedule to close out the season, one that includes a critical game against Villa and games against Chelsea, city rivals Liverpool, and Arsenal.
Portsmouth, by comparison, gets to play Wigan, Newcastle, Fulham, and Middlesbrough down the stretch, and their “toughest” game could very well be at West Ham, which is certainly winnable. Of course, Portsmouth could also qualify for the UEFA Cup by winning the FA Cup, which they would do if they beat Coca-Cola Championship side West Bromwich Albion at Wembley on April 5 and then either Barnsley or Cardiff City in the final on May 17.
Villa, as previously mentioned, have a chance to gain three points back against Everton when the two teams meet on April 27, and they also play Bolton, Derby, and Wigan. Their most difficult game is at Old Trafford next week, but Manchester United is their only remaining opponent outside of Everton in the top 9 in the standings.
Everton could’ve gone a long way towards sealing 5th place today. They didn’t. Will they regret it? It’s possible.