David Moyes, the Everton manager, yesterday revealed how he feared Tim Cahill would miss the rest of the season after sustaining a back injury against Fulham at the weekend.
With Everton needing just four points from their final three games to secure Champions' League qualification next season, the loss of top scorer Cahill would have been a blow to Moyes' plans. But after an X-ray and intensive treatment, the former Millwall player could be back for some part of Everton's vital run-in.
Moyes said: "Tim went for a scan after the game at Fulham and he was very sore. At that stage it looked as if he would be out for the rest of the season, but we are more optimistic now. He has pulled some ligaments at the base of his back but it is not quite as bad as we first feared. We are hoping it will clear up quickly."
Cahill is unlikely to be fit for Saturday's match against Newcastle, which is Everton's final home fixture of the season. Victory would virtually assure Moyes' men of fourth place and would mean Liverpool must win at Arsenal 24 hours later.
But Everton are at Highbury on 11 May and then travel to Bolton on the final day of the season, and Cahill could be back for one or both of those games. Moyes said: "There are only three games to go so we may ask people to take risks if they are not 100 per cent, but we won't ask Tim to do that because he has played so much football in the last 12 months. It is unlikely for the weekend but things are looking much better now than they were on Saturday."
Moyes' comments suggest the captain Alan Stubbs (shoulder) and the full-back Gary Naysmith (ankle) could both figure at some stage in the final fortnight of the campaign even though they are not fully fit.
Moyes' concerns over Cahill's long-term fitness arise because the 25-year-old has played solidly for almost two years without a lengthy break, regularly playing for Australia. His punishing schedule over the past year has included 37 appearances for his club and also performances for his country at the Olympics last summer, which delayed his Goodison arrival after signing from Millwall in the summer.
The demands will also intensify once the season ends as he is due to meet up with Australia for the Confederations Cup in Germany.
The club's goalkeeper Nigel Martyn believes the reason Everton have exceeded everyone's expectations this season is because they have made themselves a hard team to beat.
"I think we have exceeded everyone else's expectations this season," Martyn said. "Internally, you are always hopeful that you are going to achieve something and that is what we set out to do and that is what we have done.
"There is a great team spirit and a group of players who want to work hard for each other and make it so we are a hard team to beat, and that is where we are at the moment."