Everton are ready to join Champions League elite, says Cahill

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The performance was not as convincing as Monday night's, the result not as conclusive, but Everton's reflections yesterday on a 2-0 win at Manchester City – which saw them leapfrog Liverpool into fourth place in the Premier League and assume odds of 2-1 for a Champions League spot – had many remembering the corresponding fixture on a September afternoon three years ago.

Everton won 1-0 back then, climbed to fifth place in the table and never dropped below fourth for the rest of a season which saw them make it, fleetingly, into Champions League competition the following autumn. "The similarities between now and then are that we have a team full of players who want to play for this football club and who will do everything they can to get in the team," said Tim Cahill, Everton's match-winner on an afternoon which provides good omens for what promises to be another pell-mell dash for fourth spot with Liverpool the 4-7 favourites.

But for David Moyes, the City of Manchester stadium provides a different kind of memory; one which Cahill's arrival at the beginning of the 2004-05 season was expressly intended to remove. The Scot reached the nadir of his six-year reign at Goodison in the 5-1 defeat at City on the last day of the 2003-04 season, which prompted him to warn that there were "a few players here now who will not be here when we start again in August".

The defeat was, indeed, the more significant staging post in what Moyes described on Monday night as his plan to get the club "back to the stage that it was at many, many years ago" – the cup-winning 1980s. Though four of Moyes' present side – Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman, Joseph Yobo and Lee Carsley – were around for the mauling, the departure of Wayne Rooney that summer presaged a string of new arrivals, among them Cahill and – the following January – Mikel Arteta who have been key to the Moyes project.

The recipe is simple: a robust 4-5-1 system which means that Everton, unlike Liverpool, simply do not mess up against lesser sides. They are frequently first to the ball, though the playmakers Arteta, Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman, set among the stoppers Carsley and Phil Neville, provide a crisp dimension more visible on some occasions than others. Everton might not have a Torres but their goal tally this season is equal to Liverpool's.

Monday's win has Everton convinced they can pip Liverpool to fourth place as they did in 2005 and have Rafael Benitez ruing his infamous description of them as a "small club". A greater tendency to put smaller clubs away plays in their favour, though the Carling Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea raised questions about their ability when it comes to the elite. That said, Liverpool must meet Manchester United and Arsenal in the run-in while Everton face only Chelsea of the top three, and if Liverpool's European adventure is curtailed the financial pressure on them to prevail in the league may also count against them. The neighbours meet at Anfield on 30 March.

There are other contenders. Portsmouth, who bring their impressive away record to Goodison Park on Sunday, do not face any of the current top three again, while the former Everton keeper Nigel Martyn counsels against overlooking Aston Villa. "They do not have the distraction of playing in Europe, and we used that to our advantage three years ago," he said yesterday. While Villa's late April encounter with Everton is also shaping up to be a crucial one, Manchester City's pursuit of anything more than a Uefa Cup spot appears to be over. With such competition, Martyn believes 67 to 72 points, compared with 61 three years ago, will be necessary.

Cahill points to the collective willpower engendered by the prevailing sense at Goodison that Everton are a relatively impoverished underdog. Their win at City, their best on the road this season, was secured despite Pienaar and Manuel Fernandes playing through stomach bugs and Arteta missing with a groin injury. "As a team, this is what we are all about," Cahill said. And of course, if Everton can maintain their momentum, there might just be a Uefa Cup final awaiting them in east Manchester in May.

Maturing into a big cheese: Lescott looking tasty for the Toffees

Any suggestion that Joleon Lescott's absence from Fabio Capello's first England squad earlier this month may be prolonged appears to have faded after his display against Manchester City on Monday night, with Capello in attendance.

Lescott knows more acutely than most how traumatic European elimination at Croatia's hands was, but David Moyes – also a centre half in his playing days – suggested the experience was part of a maturing process. "Remember, this is a boy who came from Wolves and hadn't played in the Premier League," said Moyes. "You should be applauding him for coming out of the lower leagues and into the England team."

Lescott, who had been at Wolves for seven years before his move for an initial £2m in 2006, has been among the Premier League's most consistent defenders this season but his eight goals, largely from set-pieces like Monday's against City, have been more surprising.

The three who want fourth: The games that will decide the prize

EVERTON (4th) (P27, 50pts GD +20)

Sun 2 March Portsmouth (h)

Sun 9 March Sunderland (a)

Sun 16 March Fulham (a)

Sat 22 March West Ham United (h)

Sun 30 March Liverpool (a)

Sun 6 April Derby (h)

Sat 12 April Birmingham (a)

Sat 19 April Chelsea (h)

Sat 26 April Aston Villa (h)

Sat 3 May Arsenal (a)

Sun 11 May Newcastle (h)

LIVERPOOL (5th) (P26, 47pts, GD +24)

Sun 2 March Bolton (a)

Wed 5 March West Ham (h)

Sat 8 March Newcastle (h)

Sat 15 March Reading (h)

Sun 23 March Man Utd (a)

Sun 30 March Everton (h)

Sat 5 April Arsenal (a)

Sun 13 April Blackburn (h)

Sat 19 April Fulham (a)

Sat 26 April Birmingham (a)

Sat 3 May Man City (h)

Sun 11 May Tottenham (a)

ASTON VILLA (6th) (P27, 47pts, GD +15)

Sat 1 March Arsenal (a)

Sat 8 March Middlesbrough (h)

Sat 15 March Portsmouth (a)

Sat 22 March Sunderland (h)

Sun 30 March Man Utd (a)

Sat 5 April Bolton (h)

Sat 12 April Derby (a)

Sun 20 April Birmingham (h)

Sat 26 April Everton (a)

Sat 3 May Wigan (h)

Sun 11 May West Ham (a)