An opportunity spurned and a lifeline seized. One team missing the chance to take a huge step forward in their quest to gatecrash the top table of Europe’s elite, the other still on course for midweek sojourns on the continent next season.
There are plenty of similarities between West Ham United and Everton, from the stewardship of David Moyes to this weekend’s result that meant both had scabbed 1-0 wins away at the other’s home. The two clubs have spent the Premier League era bound by fluctuating ambitions of establishing themselves as a top six force and the odd flirtation with relegation, even though the latter is a fate to have never befallen Everton.
And yet Sunday’s match at the London Stadium felt like an acknowledgment of one’s dominance over the other. Everton sat back, allowing West Ham 68.8 per cent of the ball - the most Moyes has overseen in a single match since the battle of 81 Crosses as Manchester United manager against Fulham in 2014. Just as it was then, his side failed to make more of it.
At the game’s conclusion, both sides were back together again. West Ham’s inability to make hay after Leicester City’s Friday night defeat to Newcastle United means they are five points off fourth when it could have been two with a win, or even one had Chelsea lost to Manchester City instead of triumphing 2-1. That Manchester United have secured Champions League qualification and are likely to play a weakened team against either Leicester on Tuesday or Liverpool on Thursday, who are a point behind with that game in hand in sixth, means they could be down to sixth by the time they play Brighton next Saturday evening.
“I think because we lost today I had set my target and I knew where I felt we had to go that defeat might be costly for us,” said a pragmatic Moyes in his press conference. “But you never know in football so I might be saying something different in time. It is only my judgment.” For most of this season, that judgement has been pretty sound.
At the other end of this ambivalent scale was Carlo Ancelotti. "It was a vital victory because if we didn't win here we'd be out of the fight for Europe," he said, with his side now three points off West Ham with a game in hand against Aston Villa on Thursday to come. "The players understood the importance of this game. The attitude, the spirit and the motivation was really high today.”
Arguably the most surprising and at the same time came least believable comment came from Moyes. When asked specifically about the Champions League on a number of occasions, a topic of conversation he has broached with a degree of trepidation over the last couple of months, he dialled things down.
“If we qualify for Europe it will be an incredible achievement no matter what tournament we are in because it has been a great season and we are hoping we can keep it going,” he said, before later ceding chances of making the top four were “slim”. He was even up on the legislature, correcting one assertion that fifth could hold a Champions League spot regardless of who wins the final between Manchester City and Chelsea (provided Chelsea remain in the top four). It won’t.
Similarly, there was a hint of tempering expectation from Ancelotti - notably in the way he set-up his team and how he explained this approach after. They worked to be defensive from the top in 5-3-2 and allowed West Ham the ball because Everton “are not a possession team”. He’s right, of course: a season average of 46.67 per cent has them 14th in the league. Then again, West Ham are 15th with 42.35, and it was far from fool-proof Moyes’ team could and perhaps should have scored twice despite not registering a shot on target.
But as we enter the endgame of an arduous season, the respective modesty purveyed by these two teams makes sense.
The finish to the 2019/20 season eventually saw West Ham finish 16th, five points above the relegation zone, and Everton an underwhelming 12th. And in a season where the majority of teams have tried to get by as best they could, both have managed to drastically improve on their positions as English football emerges out of the depths of Covid-19.
Beyond the financial constraints brought on by the pandemic that will affect them going forward, they have seen how the upper reaches of football are trying to be taken from them with the European Super League. And going into next season European football of any kind will be a boost to finances and, more over, their standings.
They and Leicester are the biggest threats to the established order. And, in many ways, they carry an equal share of the neutral vote as the final placings are to be decided.
Leicester hold the last and most available Champions League spot, which they’ll earn if they can hold onto it with games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur to finish. Set that against West Ham’s remaining fixtures of Brighton, West Bromwich Albion and Southampton and Moyes, quietly at least, may hold some tangible hope of the top four, or at least equalling the club’s best Premier League finish of fifth, when Harry Redknapp took them that high in 1998/99.
Similarly, Everton’s finale of Aston Villa, Sheffield United, Wolves and a Manchester City side who should have already won the league and will be resting players for the Champions League final gives them a legitimate shot at sixth. Should Chelsea and Leicester remain in the top five, the Europa League spot allocated for the FA Cup winner will go to whoever finishes sixth, keeping Everton well in the hunt for that competition with the safety net of the Europa Conference League.
Yet even with so little of the campaign remaining, plenty more needs to go West Ham’s and Everton’s way beyond what they can control. And Liverpool and Tottenham (seventh) are menacing presences to both, respectively.
Thus, maybe it makes sense for both to be apprehensive. To almost revel in the fact that such a tumultuous period of football is coming to its conclusion with semblances of hope rather than the existential dread and inertia both fanbases are familiar with.
In two weeks time, West Ham and Everton could be reflecting on much better times. But even now, things are still pretty good.
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